Consider yourself forgiven if you don’t remember the original Shantae, released for the Game Boy Color in 2002 — it didn’t exactly go down in history as a best seller. A less intrepid developer would have taken this as evidence that you just can’t sell games about belly dancing half-genies, but WayForward knew they had an awesome formula, and thank goodness they stuck with it! After reviving the franchise on the Nintendo DS last year, they’ve brought the sequel to iOS as Shantae: Risky’s Revenge (Out Now, $2.99 Sale as IAP).
While Shantae’s release is an exciting milestone in the iOS Action Adventure library, don’t go in expecting a very deep plot. This is yet another title that caters to gamers’ apparent taste for kookiness, its script littered with just the kind of guffaw-worthy double entendres you might expect from a cast that’s barely half-dressed. The game’s first few minutes, available as a free download from the App Store, do a pretty good job of summing things up for those who aren’t Shantae fans yet. The title character has found herself in charge of protecting the port of Scuttle Town, especially from the pirate queen known as Risky Boots. When Risky breaks into town with a giant walking boat(!) and makes off with an all-powerful artifact, it’s up to Shantae to track her down and take it back before something really bad happens.
It’s nearly impossible to count the ways Shantae had me waxing nostalgic for the masterpiece that was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, but let’s start with the move list. Apparently only full genies get to use bona fide weapons; as a half-genie, Shantae makes do with her ponytail, which she whips around with force that would make any Belmont proud. Supplementing her physical attacks are elemental spells the player can hotlink to a button right above her magic meter. The curiously labeled “dash” button is really a backward-sliding escape maneuver that will feel immediately familiar to fans of the Metroidvania that started it all. And where would a good Action Adventure title be without transformations? Holding on the attack button makes Shantae cycle through various dance moves, and she’ll turn into one of three creatures depending on the timing of release.
Lest I make it sound like Shantae is a sequin-laced, one-to-one transfer of the Symphony formula, I should point out that it eschews complex RPG stats in favor of a simple inventory system, hearts for measuring the character’s health, and other staples typical of pure Action Adventure games. Shantae’s home town serves as her base of operations, where the player can shop and pump NPCs for info about where she should go next. Both the town and the overworld surrounding it are incredibly deep environments, and I do mean “deep” literally — while the game is presented in side-scrolling perspective, multiple environments are stacked like pancakes that stretch toward and away from the player. Shantae leaps between environmental layers via directional springboards, and this comes in handy for circumventing obstacles or chasms she wouldn’t be able to get past otherwise. It’s an incredibly slick navigation system that you really have to see in motion to fully appreciate.
Even before I was blown away by Shantae’s creative environment layering, I was impressed by the mere fact that the heroine could actually swim — you know, instead of immediately drowning or carrying on her normal running animation underwater, like just about every platforming protagonist who preceded her. I thought that detail boded well for the range of actions the player would eventually perform in this one, and I was not disappointed in the least. Shantae does plenty of ground crawling and rope shimmying, and when she’s reached the limits of a human body, her transformations become the star gameplay mechanic.
Shantae’s capacity for scaling walls, busting through large rocks, and swimming with proficiency while transformed let the player take full advantage of the game’s exquisite environment designs. Hidden chambers contain tons of loot and items that can be used to upgrade Shantae’s spells, giving the player plenty of incentive to seek them out. The player also feels encouraged to revisit locations to see if anything new can be uncovered once a new transformation has been learned. The dungeons that house bosses are impressively labyrinthine, yet they fold in on themselves to provide shortcuts that mercifully keep backtracking to a minimum. The overworld makes use of warp points for the same purpose.
Enemy and boss designs are just as impressive as Shantae’s environments. Rest assured that Shantae’s first encounter with Risky – where the player has to turn a giant boss’ own exploding barrels against it – is an omen of great things to come! Boss battles are consistently enjoyable thanks to the wide range of behaviors a typical guardian employs, and even regular enemies put up interesting challenges by shielding themselves or darting around in ways that keep them from being easily slapped down. Best of all, defeated enemies don’t reappear unless the player reloads his or her save file.