Not long ago, Kickstarter seemed like a harbinger of hope, shifting funding from the grip of corporations to the desires of consumers. But when a succession of prominent projects failed to meet expectations, the method exposed its fatal flaw: you’re investing in potential rather than the quality of a finished product. And as titles like Mighty No. 9 and Carmageddon: Reincarnation demonstrated, once developers have collected their share of financing, there’s no guarantee of quality in the final build. Even worse, high-profile projects like Yogventures and Clang failed to materialize, increasing skepticism toward the system.
But perhaps the antithesis of all this cynicism can be found in the release of Shantae: Half-Genie Hero. Bankrolled on Kickstarter over three years ago, raising nearly three-quarters of a million dollars (with post-campaign donations surging the grand total toward the million-dollar mark), the game is nothing short of a rousing success. Not only does the title extend one of the most blissful, doggedly cheerful platforming experiences of the year, but the quality of the game is strong enough to renew confidence in game crowdfunding.
Whether your platform of preference is PlayStation 4, PS Vita, Xbox One, Wii U, or PC, one thing you’ll immediate notice about Hero is the title’s high-definition appearance. WayForward’s two most recent outings, 2010’s Risky’s Revenge and 2014’s Pirate’s Curse used pixelated sprites to depict Shantae and her opponents- giving each game a thoroughly retro vibe. With Half-Genie Hero, everything is polygonal, eliminating the visual dissonance between characters and backdrops. But pleasingly, all of Shantae’s sinuous shimmying has been meticulously preserved, with both heroine and opponents fluidly animated. The result is that Half-Genie Hero is thoroughly beguiling, with Shantae’s dance animation flaunting a hypnotic belly dance while enemies explode with energetic fury from unassuming barrels.
Similarly, the game’s sonic output hasn’t been slighted. Push past the game’s succinct prologue, and you’ll encounter a stage with a fully voiced song (“Dance Through the Danger” performed by Christina Vee). Indefatigably plucky, it’s reminiscent of the energetic numbers that accompany the opening montage of a Japanese role-playing game, with obstinately upbeat lyrics and a rhythm capable of goading even indifferent gamers into action. Subsequent tracks blend Middle Eastern melodies, sinuous electronica, and the intermittent guitar riff that might just set a new standard for composer Jake “Virt” Kaufman.
Unlike many crowdfunded projects that deliver efforts propelled by egos rather than fan desires, Half-Genie Hero divulges WayForward heeding the critics and consumers. Back are the transformations, permitting the protagonist to sashay and shift into a variety of charming animal forms that range from monkey, mermaid, and crab. Following gaming convention, these shapeshifts each come with their own distinctive ability, allowing Shantae to scamper up walls like an agile simian or explore underwater areas with her finned features. Unlike the last two games in the franchise, which offered a combination of autonomy and the occasional lack of guidance, Half-Genie Hero is a bit more linear- and better for it.
Naturally, the transformations invite players to backtrack to previous-played stages, granting admittance to previously inaccessible areas. The concise number of stages and the eschewal of multiplaned paths definitely lessens the likelihood of getting lost. And even if players do become mislaid, speaking to NPC or visiting Scuttle Town’s bath house is poised to get players back on track. Another upside in the lack of any eleventh-hour difficulty spike. Those who braved Pirate’s Curse concluding moments will appreciate the dampening of difficulty. Mind you, Half-Genie Hero provides some thorny platforming and will likely induce cursing, but the level of challenge feels more consistent. Much of that stems from the game’s adept level design and clever boss battles- with the latter demonstrating screen-sized baddies.
Another of Half-Genie Hero’s accomplishment is the game’s sense of humor, with dialog and visual set-ups that can connect with both children and adults. With the occasional reference to Shantae’s skimpy costume or the sporadic sophomoric joke, WayForward manages to insert some playful puckishness into the proceedings. But largely, the humor is allusional, avoiding the coarseness that might concern parents. The only problem is that the game’s sound mixing can make the occasional sound bite hard to discern above song and sound effect.
In an era when crowdfunded games regularly disappoint and worse- don’t even surface, the release of Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is evidence of the procedure’s potential. It’s an example of the studio seeking to advance their ambitions, while carefully listening to the wishes of their fan-base. As a game, it’s nothing short of a new watermark for WayForward, who are well on their way to becoming the undisputed royals of the 2D realm.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero was played on the PlayStation 4
and PS Vita with review code provided by the publisher.