It seems as though every game is striving to be darker and more mature than the rest. There was a day and age when platformers dominated the gaming market with their simplicity and sweet sincerity. Yet, we’ve reached a point where it seems to be “apocalypse this” and “end of the world that”. Shantae and the Seven Sirens is the latest game in the Shantae series, a franchise which originates back to 2002 on the Game Boy Color. 8 years later and the Shantae series slowly emerged from the woodwork with Shantae: Risky’s Revenge. Since then, each release has garnered a wider audience than the last through successful Kickstarters and word of mouth, before reaching Shantae and the Seven Sirens which, despite some frequent missteps, is her finest outing yet.
The word Metroidvania gets thrown around fairly frequently these days, but Shantae and the Seven Sirens on the Xbox One is most definitely another superb entry to the genre. Taking the role of Shantae, you and your friend are whisked to a tropical island to get involved with the Half-Genie Festival. Once the festivities kick off, your genie counterparts mysteriously vanish, and what ensues is a quest to find each genie, unlock new powers and make your way through the vibrant world.
Right off the bat, Shantae and the Seven Sirens is absolutely stunning. Featuring fully animated anime-style cutscenes, the game itself plays like an animation that prides itself in color and fluidity. Everything about Shantae and the Seven Sirens is expressive in many ways. Characters are animated with wonderful personalities, backgrounds are meticulously crafted and the way Shantae whips, zips and slides through each frame is truly beautiful, running at an incredible 60fps.
The world is such a joy to explore and uncover. While certain assets repeat themselves, such as room layouts, the art direction manages to create truly distinct zones that feel alive. The enemy design constantly evolves into wondrous creations that are a joy to wipe out of existence with a swish hair flick.
No world would be entertaining to explore without constant abilities awarded to help unlock new areas. Your first dash through zones will tantalize you with hidden passages, blocked paths and chests to unearth. Shantae quickly learns the ability to transform and this will help her uncover new areas and visit previously blocked off sections; a drill to dig through sand is one example. Alongside this, she will merge with other genies which provide her the ability to use area effects on each frame. An early ability allows you to display every secret in each area.
Monster cards are one of the biggest features of Shantae and the Seven Sirens. Sometimes monsters you kill will drop collectible cards, which in turn can be used to acquire perks. To unlock these, you’ll have to obtain a certain amount of cards from each monster to unlock the perk. More powerful perks will require more cards, while lesser ones are easier to obtain. These can range from increased damage to faster crawling speed. It’s a great way to allow players to cater the experience to their own liking with lite-RPG elements.
While it’s highly motivating to push forward and gain new abilities, Shantae and the Seven Sirens isn’t particularly user-friendly when it comes to navigating the world. The map fails to retain any recollection of areas you’ve visited which perhaps held secrets you lacked the ability to uncover. Instead, you’ll need to rely on your own memory to remember past areas you might need to venture back to with your new abilities. It’s an extremely frustrating oversight, as one of the joys of the genre is that of slowly carving your way back through areas for that 100% completion. Not knowing where you’ve been, what’s left to uncover or any indication of the overall completion of an area is constantly annoying.
The world design can severely ruin the pacing in points. Shantae and the Seven Sirens operates in a certain gameplay loop: overworld exploration, pre-dungeon area and then finally a dungeon to complete. It works in the same vein as Zelda, but punctuates obtuse adventure game tropes within. After completing a dungeon, you’ll often be required to perform a task to locate the next area with no indication of where to go. One particular quest has you trading items between characters in different towns, with little hints to push you forward. It’s moments like this that ruin the overall momentum of Shantae and the Seven Sirens.
Luckily, once you’re back on track you’re treated to some incredibly satisfying exploration and combat. Item shops allow you to upgrade Shantae with new spells and upgrades such as more damage. Using your hair to whip through enemies remains gratifying throughout the ten hour story, but having the additional ability to use spells such as flamethrowers and spinning blades manages to really mix it up.
Platforming remains tight and precise, but ultimately fairly simple. It’s not until the final dungeon when the game’s difficulty really hits full speed and holds no punches, with the final boss being a gauntlet of both combat and platforming. The simplicity to the platforming makes way for the exploration to be much more rewarding. Hidden caves hold heart squids which are used to increase your health, and secret areas have chests containing nuggets, which are used to buy rare monster cards. Every frame is packed with some hidden nook and cranny that begs for your attention, making a truly rewarding experience for those who wish to explore.
Shantae and the Seven Sirens on the Xbox One is the best in the series yet. Despite some truly obscure pacing issues and some irritating map design, the base adventure remains extremely enjoyable, with rewarding exploration and a constant sense of progression. While the formula may need more quality of life improvements to really stand out in the genre, Shantae and the Seven Sirens is a step in the right direction and places the series on the right track for success.