Hair be monsters!
Browsing the screenshots prior to purchasing and indeed playing Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse it was difficult not to notice the amount of cleavage on display. Now whatever one may think of this, and I must admit to being impressed by the imagination that decided to use a bra and trousers to create a monster’s face, it’s hard to deny it can be somewhat distracting, and after multiple patches it’s hard to find any other good reason as to why the Exit Game menu option still reads “Eit Game”, unless there is some hilarious in-joke that I’m not aware of.
But while basic spelling remains a stumbling block for veteran developer WayForward, their efforts in game design are at something of a high point. The third game in the series, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a throwback to classic 90's 2D platformers with a touch of metroidvania, and is a colourful little gem of smart design ideas and goofy personality.
You play as Shantae; a former half-genie belly dancer who uses her long purple hair as a deadly whip. Her home of Scuttle Town is under the oppression of the Ammo Baron, whose near-fetishist obsession with everything military is on a par with Michael Bay. However a greater threat is on the horizon and Shantae must team up with her former nemesis, the provocative purple pirate Risky Boots, to halt its return.
Now whilst the plot is rather unremarkable; a standard tale of evil to be vanquished, the characters you meet are varied and often entertaining. Your mileage will almost certainly vary when it comes to the comedy, but I found its silly humour endearing, if not laugh out loud funny. It’s got charm and makes an effort to engage you, adding an appealing icing on top of the scrumptious cake that is the game’s clever set of mechanics and considered level design.
From her home in Scuttle Town, Shantae must fight and platform her way through a set of linear islands, each with its own theme and dungeon which must be located, accessed, and then overcome to proceed on to the next. The islands have an agreeable amount of variety to them, both visually and mechanically, and once discovered can be returned to at any time via Risky's pirate ship.
Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse has a great understanding of how to pace a game and how to construct a difficulty arc. As you progress and gain various abilities the game does an excellent job at teaching you how to use them and incorporating them into the various dungeons and associated boss encounters. It’s very much akin to a 3D Zelda game in how each dungeon makes use of your latest ability, and how the way in which you’re tested expands over the course of the game, creating a satisfying curve of ever more challenging areas, but where the game has actually taught you how to make the most of the many tools at your disposal, giving a sense of real progress in terms of your skill and a feeling of power gained. Old areas become much easier to traverse when searching for health upgrades and quest items, and previously problematic enemies are reduced to mere fodder in the face of your scimitar charge and giant double-jump cannon.
That said none of this would work if the controls were not as tight as they are. Movement feels smooth and the clear visual design makes the gameplay largely frustration free, leaving skill as the deciding factor, although the distance between save points mean that it can be easy to find yourself covering the same ground if you’re not careful. The game has controller support and works perfectly well, and while keyboard inputs can be rebound the lack of mouse support is a disappointment, as is the use of controller prompts regardless of which control system you are using.
Visually the experience will be familiar to anyone who grew up in the time of Castle of Illusion or Bubsy, albeit with a 2014 sheen. The cartoony visuals and colourful environments fit well with the lively and upbeat atmosphere, whilst the soundtrack is nice and catchy with a couple of great tracks that threaten to linger in the mind and hips.
A few relatively minor gripes aside, such as a somewhat aggravating final boss battle, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse is a top tier 2D platformer. All its major elements are well designed, fit together nicely, and overall offers a fun and challenging experience. It’s not revolutionary in any sense, cribbing as it does from many other games, but it uses those influences well and crucially has a personality and quality all of its own.