Shantae and the Seven Sirens restarts the progression that the first three installments in the series were slowly developing and rehabilitates the saga by reconnecting it with what made it original
For a franchise that had, in all four of its releases, yet to produce a miss, it may be weird to talk about rehabilitation. Yet, that is perhaps the best way to approach Shantae and the Seven Sirens, the fifth entry in the popular platforming saga created by Matt Bozon and developed by the independent studio WayForward. Such a status is earned due to the nature of the installment that immediately preceded it: Half-Genie Hero. Although generally perceived in a very positive light by critics, the game was met with a mixed reaction from its fanbase, with some perceiving it as a pleasant change of pace and others looking at it like an odd misstep.
The fact of the matter is that Half-Genie Hero went against a good portion of the elements that had always made the property so unique. Ever since its inception, which happened in the tail-end of the Game Boy Color’s lifespan, the series had thrived in mixing action-platforming with expansive maps, tying what would otherwise be standalone levels by using an overworld that brought exploration, backtracking, and maze-like constructions to the table. And that concept was neatly expanded as Shantae navigated through her self-titled debut, her anticipated comeback nearly one decade later with Risky’s Revenge, and her arguable peak in the fantastic Pirate’s Curse.
Half-Genie Hero, though, brought that progression to a halt. Rather than building upon what Pirate’s Curse had constructed, it actually disassembled the structure that was in place. Gone was the intricate overworld, and in came a level-selection map presenting the stages like items in a menu. Oddly, however, instead of approaching its adventure as a linear road to glory, like the one seen in the two-dimensional Super Mario platformers from which it borrowed its world map, Half-Genie Hero retained franchise staples that forced players to retrace their steps. The result was neither a fluid action-platformer of straightforward goodness nor a lighter version of the backtracking-filled Metroidvania giants. And in that quirky indecision, the game failed to take full advantage of any of those two worlds.
Shantae and the Seven Sirens, by all means, solves that problem, and it does so in the simplest of ways: by picking up where Pirate’s Curse had left off. Consequently, it restarts the progression that the first three installments in the series were slowly developing and rehabilitates the saga by reconnecting it with what made it original. It is ultimately impossible to know whether the decision to rollback what had been done was made due to a feeling of coldness emanating from the fanbase or as a consequence of the recent love garnered by Metroidvania efforts like Hollow Knight, Ori and the Blond Forest, Guacamelee, and Dead Cells. But the bottom line is that, in Seven Sirens, Shantae returns to her roots.
It all begins when the protagonist and her entourage are invited to Paradise Island. The purpose of the trip is a festival being held to pay homage to half-genies, women that – like Shantae herself – were born to a human father and a genie mother. Thanks to their inherited powers, these beings work as the protectors of villages around the world, a position that has become especially valuable given the magical creatures that birthed them have disappeared. Desperate for a trip, the gang accepts the offer unaware of the danger that awaits them.
After reaching land and meeting the five fellow half-genies who are to accompany her during the festival, Shantae and the girls are urged to hop on stage to practice for the performance they are to execute when the real festivity starts. Surprised by the presence of a very large crowd, they begin dancing and displaying their magic. However, not too long after the act has kicked off, the lights go out and all the half-genies who were beside Shantae vanish into thin air, much to the dismay of the attendants and the town’s mayor himself. As the only one of her kind who has been left standing, the protagonist vows to rescue her kidnapped friends, and that journey will put her face to face with the mysteries of the island as well as with the titular seven sirens.
As it turns out, the villages and environments that stand on the surface of Paradise Island are nothing but a small part of its extent, for beneath it – constructed in the midst of the ocean’s waters – lie the corridors of a sunken city that was built by the sirens that dominated the place once upon a time. And it is by jumping into one of the entrances of this underwater citadel that Shantae begins her journey.
Such premise of ancient, mysterious, and mythical creatures kidnapping powerful young girls and taking them to the depths of their sunken lairs is surprisingly dark for a franchise whose character design, writing, and general demeanor carry a cartoonish goofiness that shamelessly borders on cheesy from time to time. At the same time, though, the concept that gets Seven Sirens moving is also just about perfect for the lonely and dangerous aura one expects to get out of the exploration component of the best titles of the Metroidvania subgenre. Since Shantae, as a franchise, has always tried – and, to a great extent, succeeded – in taking a jab at what this absurd contradiction can produce, the plot of this fifth entry ends up being the perfect grounds for the creation of what qualifies as the series’ most ambitious outing up to the present.
The surface of Paradise Island forms, with the hallways and shafts of the ancient dwelling place of the sirens, a pleasantly large overworld, with more than a dozen notable sub-areas waiting to be discovered and explored. In true Metroidvania fashion, Shantae slowly gets access to new places as her arsenal of abilities grows, meaning the map slowly reveals itself in a way that is far from linear, as entry points that are in plain sight may not be reachable until much later into the adventure. As a nod to those who get a good enjoyment out of exploration without a lot of guidance, a considerable portion of the quest unfolds without any sort of marker to indicate where players have to go or what they have to do.
Shantae, however, would neither be as accessible as its visuals indicate nor as original as a great franchise has to be if it played entirely by those rules. And that is where its unique quirks come in. For starters, those who are in the mood of getting some directions can easily receive them by talking to the numerous folks present throughout the game’s overworld, which – besides delivering humorous bits of dialogue and taking care of shops where valuable upgrades can be purchased – will also give general tips regarding where the half-genie should look next. In addition, these characters also serve a purpose that makes the property stand out considerably among its peers.
In Seven Sirens – much like it happened in its predecessors, including the more straightforwardly structured Half-Genie Hero – the usual Metroidvania non-linear progression is not achieved solely through the acquiring of new abilities; it is also present in how the game is punctuated by story-related events and a few trading sequences. Sometimes what is blocking the protagonist’s way forward is not a wall that can be climbed or a rock that needs to be moved, but someone who is willing to give Shantae what she needs if she can bring them what they want. Thanks to moments such as these, gamers will be constantly pushed towards either further exploration or more interactions, spicing the quest with a flavor of adventure and dialogues that is just not commonly seen in the Metroidvania genre, and given looking for unknown places on the map is a joy and talking to the many characters that are on Paradise Island is interesting, the recipe works.
Another aspect that gives Shantae a special touch, and that in Seven Sirens is more fully realized than ever before, is its unique structure. It all begins with its level design, which – despite the labyrinthine setup of its map – features numerous sequences whose challenge recalls what one would find in an action platformer of the 16-bit era. In other words, these portions offer a mixture of simple jumps with enemy hordes that need to be disposed of via a combination of the half-genie’s hair whip and the magic-consuming secondary attacks she can deploy, such as fireballs, missiles, knives, boomerangs, and etc. Therefore, Seven Sirens is as much a Metroidvania as it is an action-platformer.
Secondly, there are its dungeons. While the game’s overworld is a maze of fully connected areas with tunnels heading in every direction (one that is well-supplied by warping points), the lairs of the sirens – where Shantae’s five friends are being held – work like standalone self-contained dungeons whose entrances are somewhere below sea level.
To further deserve that name, which recalls The Legend of Zelda franchise, most of the progression within them as well as their lack of linearity is achieved by tracking down keys and opening doors to move forward. Truth be told, there are no design surprises inside them that equal the cleverness of what one would find in an entry of Nintendo’s popular property. Each of them are, though, pretty different from one another, exhibiting unique mechanics and – like it happens in a The Legend of Zelda game – both offering challenges centered around the ability that is acquired within them and culminating with a boss battle that also involves said new skill.
Speaking of abilities, Shantae once more shows to be quite flexible in that regard. First of all, she can transform into one of five different animals, each presenting a trick of its own: as a newt, she is able to dash and stick to walls, allowing her to climb; as a shelled bug, she can dig into soft soil; as a tortoise, she breaks through rock either by slamming or stomping; as a frog, she gains the ability to swim underwater; and as an octopus, she acquires a triple jump.
These transformations, which are obtained inside the dungeons and that are individually easily triggered by a button-based command, are complemented by four magical dances, which she learns from the half-genies she releases after putting her hands on a specific item they ask for. These, activated by a combination of the X button and the directional, reveal invisible objects, activate electric devices, cause ground-moving earthquakes, and restore petrified creatures or poisoned substances.
None of these elements are mind-blowing or gameplay-defining. They are, however, nicely used by WayForward to put together a quest that should last for at least seven hours. And to those looking for reasons to keep playing for a little longer, Seven Sirens delivers quite a few. As tradition dictates, scattered around the world are thirty-six Heart Squids to be found, with each four of them giving Shantae a new unit of health. Additionally, the game also boasts a harder mode unlocked upon completion of the campaign, more than a dozen hidden statues, and forty-five golden nuggets. The last of which are actually tied to what might as well be the Seven Sirens’ most notable new collectible: the monster cards.
These are randomly dropped by the title’s vast array of foes whenever they are defeated, being a kind of catalog for all the baddies contained in the game. Bosses, however, do not produce them; as a consequence, when it comes to those mighty enemies, Shantae will have to trade golden nuggets with the characters who have their respective cards. More than working for the purpose of collection, though, these items also unlock special abilities. Once a certain number of a specific card is acquired, the skill they contain, such as boosting her climbing speed as a newt or increasing the damage produced by her hair whip, will become available. And the half-genie will be able to equip up to three of them at the same time.
For all the good it does by putting the franchise back on track, one cannot go without noticing Seven Sirens also commits slip-ups in a few key areas. Its map, for example, could have been greatly improved if it carried visual indications of where collectibles that were seen are lying, because sometimes it is just impossible to remember the location of spots that one could not clear when they were originally found. Similarly, the title could have done a better job at cluing players into where the statues are located, as their hiding spots are overly obscure.
Meanwhile, on the matter of difficulty, the game leaves a lot to be desired, because even in its boss battles Seven Sirens will hardly cause an experienced player to break a sweat, a fact that – sadly – greatly diminishes the value of the abilities brought by the collectible monster cards and the additional health obtained by those who go the extra mile looking for the Heart Squids.
The bosses themselves are another issue, because besides being too easy, some of them simply feel undercooked, as if those responsible for designing the battles came up with a nice concept but could not develop it as thoroughly as they should have. Likewise, but to a much smaller degree, that problem is equally present in some sections of the game’s world and dungeons, which seem unable to grab a hold of the good idea on which they were based to land on a truly outstanding moment. Therefore, while some of its critically acclaimed Metroidvania peers string together sparks of awe seamlessly, Seven Sirens ends up amounting to an adventure that is rather consistent in being very good, but not bright enough to be elevated beyond that threshold. A similar comment can be made about its visual and musical components, which are certainly quite competent and charming, but fail to reach the heights achieved by other independent efforts.
It is a long list of shortcomings. Yet, saying Shantae and the Seven Sirens is very flawed would be a mistake, because – save from its boss battles – no component of the game comes off as lackluster or problematic. What it truly lacks is a bright spark of creativity to elevate it further. However, in spite of that absence, the quest it contains remains enjoyable throughout the way, and the whole package is recommended to anyone looking for a lighter – but still very big in scope – take on the Metroidvania genre, one that sprinkles a maze-like world with drops of straightforward action-platforming and adventure.
Shantae and the Seven Sirens is a very welcome return to form by one of the independent scene’s most beloved franchises. And even if it has some catching up to do to match the best efforts of its genre, there is no denying that the change it brings to the table is as pleasant to experience as the knowledge that the half-genie is back to doing what she knows best; that is, unlocking the secrets of a big labyrinth while talking to characters, executing trading sequences, going through dungeons, and bringing down foes with her signature hair whip.