There are certain video games that feel familiar, ones that coming back to is like putting on a well worn shoe. While Shantae and the Seven Sirens is only the fifth game in the series, and the third one to come out on home consoles, there is something about its approach, its gameplay that makes it feel like a game you’ve already played a hundred times before.
Whether that’s a good thing or not is completely up to your own interpretation.
As previously mentioned Shantae and the Seven Sirens is the fifth entry in WayForward’s flagship series, one that started on the Game Boy Color before eventually becoming the multiplatform franchise it is today. While starting out as a typical 2D platformer, as it exists today, Shantae is as typical an example of the metroidvania style of game as you’ll find anywhere.
The elements that seperate it out from amongst the crowded space being Shantae’s ability to transform into various different animals in order to traverse the world and solve puzzles and the very cute character design intended to provide fan service and some very mild titillation. Seven Sirens changes very little in this regard, bringing back all of the familiar elements and characters while adding a new (and sadly underwhelming) change to Shantae’s dance abilities.
While events of previous games in the series have directly followed on from their predecessor, this game begins a story anew. Shantae and user usual entourage arrive at Paradise Island for a vacation and to attend the first ever Half-Genie Festival. It’s there that Shantae meets a gathering of other half-genies like herself. During the performance of the opening ceremony, all of the half-genies suddenly vanish, all except Shantae.
So it’s left up to our titular hero to begin investigating the depths of the mysterious Paradise Island to uncover its true nature and rescue her half-genie sisters. Learning new abilities and battling the titular Siren bosses along the way, all while being dogged by villainous mainstay; the pirate Risky Boots. Once things get going, playing the game is going to feel extremely familiar to those who played the previous entries in the series, especially the most recent one; Half-Genie Hero.
In the beginning the player is restricted to their typical hair whip, but can collect gems to buy upgrades and spells from the shop. This is where your fireballs, pike balls and shields that have appeared in pretty much every Shantae game up till now show up. Powerful and useful abilities that come at the cost of you magic resource.
Where the gameplay differs from previous entries is where the player starts to attain the animal transformations. Previously, transforming was executed by dancing and then selecting the animal, for you wanted to turn into. At which point your abilities would change drastically depending on what animal you had become. In Seven Sirens, the transformations are more situational, happening on a button press or when a certain obstacle is interacted with.
Which is fine, except it means some of the transformations become a little uninteresting in practice. Two of them are simply the ability to swim and to burrow through the ground in a grid based pattern. The only real gameplay during which is to avoid obstacles, which is never actually a challenge. The other transformations equate to a triple jump, a ground pound and an air dash/wall climbing ability.
With these transformations changed into quick use powers, Shantae’s dancing abilities are changed up. In this game, every time Shantae rescues one of the other Half-Genies, they lend their power to the player. Giving access to electrical magic and restoration magic for example. These powers allow you to progress deeper into the game’s world while activating certain things on screen. Personally, I feel like this aspect of the game is a huge missed opportunity.
While previous game’s dancing powers changed you into a different character with a different set of powers until you turned back, the dancing powers here merely create an action. They’re essentially the equivalent of a key to whatever stand-in for a lock the power activates. You see some machinery; you use the electrical dance, you see a vegetation sprout; you use the restoration dance. And each time a image of some unexplained cute girl shows on screen and the action resolves.
It’s sadly kinda uninteresting. It’s lacking that one step of player agency that I feel the game sorely needs when it comes to its puzzle solving and out of combat gameplay. Rather than have the dance affect everything on the screen, I personally feel like it should have changed Shantae’s form, make her look like the characters that pop on screen when she uses the dance. while in this new form, you get a new power which works the same way as the power already does, meaning you need to actually do something to solve the puzzle rather than press the solve puzzle button and move on.
Which kind of drifts around the edge of the other aspect of the game I feel a little cheated on. Although this is my personal feeling and not a genuine criticism of the game; but it’s too damned easy.
By the half way point of the game, you’ve probably picked up a ton of upgrades from the shop, as well as accumulated an absolute ton of healing items from the enemies you’ve defeated along the way. It was at this point where I’d stopped using any kind of strategy against enemies and started brute forcing my way through every encounter I came across.
Once you get the hair upgrades and the scimitar spell, you can just dump damage onto enemies pretty much endlessly. Tanking hits and just using the healing items you’re most certainly inundated with at this point to outlast whatever you’re fighting. That’s how I defeated all of the bosses in the second half of the game, tearing my way through and hardly using any of the other powers I’d accumulated along the way. Even the enemies that could block damage, I just spammed the electrical dance on them from the other side of the screen. Because as previously mentioned, there was no gameplay element to doing so.
So, here’s the thing. I’ve done more complaining than praising of this game during this review. But almost all of those complaints come down to personal taste. I get the impression that Shantae and the Seven Sirens is designed to be a highly approachable and casual experience for its players. And if that’s the case then it executes this plan fantastically, playing through the game is a fun, breezy little experience that took my mind off things for the 7-8 hours it took me to finish it.
There are no shortage of mechanically interesting or crushingly difficult metroidvania games out there. Indivisible and Ori and the Will of the Wisps to just name a few I’ve played this year. That’s not what Shantae is, Shantae is a cute game full of cute characters making 4th wall breaking jokes and throwing a bunch of chip tune music your way throughout.
If you want to spend a handful of hours going through a casual little metroidvania experience, I can’t think of anything better than this Shantae game. Is it my favourite? Probably not, I liked what they did more in the Pirate’s Curse and Half-Genie Hero. But is still a fun little romp that, while doing nothing wrong, could have made a few choices that added a little more agency and player interaction with the world throughout.