Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse Review
I didn’t have access to a computer outside of my laptop for a little over a week (and I refuse to play games on it because it’s my baby and gaming can be pretty harsh on laptops since they’re not great at getting rid of heat), so it seemed like the perfect time to grab my 2DS and jump back into Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse. If you haven’t read my review of the previous game, this is something that I initially stopped playing in order to finish Risky’s Revenge—the second game in the series and the beginning of what could affectionately be considered “modern Shantae”—and thus have a better handle on how many of the characters know each other. It’s also helpful since the events of the last game are occasionally mentioned and could be considered spoilers for anyone sensitive to that kind of thing.
Speaking of spoilers…
There’s one thing from the last game that has to be spoiled here because of how heavily it ties into the mechanics and everything (consider this a warning), and that’s how Shantae loses her magical powers at the end of Risky’s Revenge, going from being half-genie to a regular human at the beginning of Pirate’s Curse. Since that’s brought up within a minute of starting a new game and I started here instead of with Risky’s Revenge, I went into the second game knowing how it’d end and feel it’s worth mentioning that it didn’t adversely affect my enjoyment. If anything, it made that game’s otherwise bittersweet ending quite a bit more palatable.
The story begins with Shantae defending her home from an attack launched by Risky’s Revenge weirdo Ammo Baron, who technically owns the town. This gets her in trouble with the authorities, and she ends up stripped of her status as town guardian as a result. Then Risky shows up and you find out that some sealed-away evil Pirate Master is returning, causing Shantae and Risky to team up in order to stop him. There’s some history between Risky and the Pirate Master that’s explored a bit, but the story is otherwise a pretty basic “evil guy is being evil and former enemies join forces to stop him” affair. There are two endings (though the bad ending isn’t really an ending at all so much as the game just stopping before anything is resolved), with the good ending obtained by finding all of the Cacklebats—which are basically Tinkerbats corrupted by dark magic into a more monstrous form—and collecting the magic left over after their defeat in a lamp Risky gives you early in the game.
This isn’t a secret, though. Toward the end of the game, Risky goes out of her way to tell you to collect all of the dark magic before continuing, so it’s not one of those games where obtaining the good ending requires advance knowledge of what to do (like in, say, Valkyrie Profile). In fact, the game does an amazing job of guiding you forward with constant nudges in the right direction that ensure that you’re unlikely to ever get stuck. This can contribute to the game feeling a bit on the easy side, but I definitely prefer that over it being intentionally vague in order to artificially inflate the difficulty.
The vanilla nature of the story doesn’t mean that there’s not worthwhile writing to be found here, especially since the weirdness that was prevalent in Risky’s Revenge has been cranked up to even more absurd heights. Squid Baron in particular steals the show on multiple occasions, fretting about the inevitability of showing up later in the game as a filler boss (one of many fourth wall breaks) as though it were his destiny. There’s also an entire sequence where Risky, Shantae, and her friends Sky and Rottytops all find themselves mistaken as the same princess, a section of the game that manages to reference both Star Wars and Star Trek despite being fairly short and light on dialogue. Possibly the most amusing part of the game is the romance between Barracuda Joe (formerly of the Battle Tower) and Sky, though. I may have seen most of the main story’s events coming from a mile away, but the way that subplot resolved was so unexpected that I was cackling with laughter. The more I play of Shantae games, the more I realize that they’re not about the stories so much as the weird happenings surrounding the games’ bizarre, charismatic characters who you can’t help but grow to love. Even the returning Scuttle Town NPCs manage to be likable and amusing despite being so minor that they don’t even have names.
Pirate equipment speeds things up quite a bit
In the first two games, Shantae gained magical animal forms that served to open up new areas by allowing her to do things not possible in her normal form. However, this meant dancing to transform, and while this wasn’t too much of a hassle, it did slow things down a bit. Shantae has no magic in this game, though, so the animal forms have instead been replaced by Risky’s lost pirate equipment that’s found piecemeal inside dungeons. These don’t require dancing to use, so the gameplay has been sped up quite a bit as a result. The pirate equipment is also noticeably more versatile than the animal forms were, with things such as Risky’s pistol serving as a long-range attack in addition to a helping you press switches from a distance, Risky’s boots allowing you to run at high speeds, Risky’s cannon giving you a quadruple jump (which can be combined with the boots to jump over huge chasms), and several other items with similarly helpful and entertaining uses.
Magical attacks from previous games like the fireball and lightning spells have been removed for obvious reasons, though not everything has been lost. To be more specific, two types of pike balls remain in the game, though they’ve been changed to consumable items rather than using up magic like in Risky’s Revenge. Consumable items are really the focus of Pirate’s Curse, with there being health items (including two types of health potions and four less-effective food items), attack damage buffs, a defensive shield that blocks projectiles, and a pirate flare that returns you to the beginning of the level.
That last one is helpful since the game isn’t all connected like in Risky’s Revenge. There are no warp squids here. Instead, each new area is a distinct island that you sail to on Risky’s ship. This means that the first screen of each island is the one with Risky and the ship, and using pirate flares to quickly return there can speed up area traversal quite a bit.
This focus on separate islands gives the game an almost Zelda-like approach to progression; you visit a new place, find the dungeon in that place, obtain a new item inside that helps you finish said dungeon, and then move on to the next area (after using said new item to search for hidden Cacklebats where you were unable to look before, of course). Personally, I didn’t care for this quite as much as the approach Risky’s Revenge took where there were only two dungeons to complete. That struck me as less formulaic, and though there’s nothing wrong with the approach Pirate’s Curse takes, I couldn’t help but miss that bit of unpredictability. As for the dungeons themselves, they’re designed well and I found myself enjoying them a surprising amount, especially since they’re all on the short side and as a result don’t wear out their welcome like those in so many other games do.
Changes, pluses, and minuses
There are all kinds of little changes that have been made between Risky’s Revenge and Pirate’s Curse that add up, and thankfully, most of them are positive. For one, Shantae now has voice acting, and while it’s not full voice acting (it’s more akin to the occasional barks found in Fire Emblem: Awakening), this nonetheless adds a certain amount of extra personality to her character. That’s helped along even further by the addition of more character expressions for the cartoon representations of the sprites during conversations. In Risky’s Revenge, Shantae had maybe 3 expressions when talking to others, with other characters faring similarly or worse. Here, however, there are numerous different expressions for each character in addition to costume versions, and this is a subtle touch that helps the characters to be even more zany.
Another change is that you can now upgrade Shantae’s hair whip’s damage in addition to its speed where before you could only upgrade the latter. Damage is shown numerically now, and the hair whip inflicts 5 points of damage by default while it does 8 damage once fully upgraded. If you use the best damage buff on top of that, you can find yourself inflicting 18 points of damage per hit, enough to beat many bosses in a single cycle. There’s no longer a magic jam requirement to buy upgrades, so you can grind out gems and do this kind of damage early in the game, and this, along with the plentiful healing items that you obtain (enemies frequently drop items, so you don’t even have to buy most of them), makes the game a bit on the easy side. Still, I prefer that over artificial difficulty for its own sake.
Then there are the things I’m less positive about. For one, the minigames. The first of these is a minigame where Shantae carries Rottytops through an area full of hazards, and getting touched once instantly kills you, sending you back to the beginning of the screen. Screens are fairly short and that’s not much of a penalty, but there’s still not any compelling reason for this section to exist apart from the developers just wanting to put a minigame there. The second minigame I can remember is a stealth sequence where being seen by guards sends you all the way back to the beginning room, and it’s a bit awkward because you have to figure out how to be stealthy through trial and error. The most notable instance of this is in the first room to use shadowy windows—these make it impossible for guards to see you, but you have no way of knowing that before dashing into the room blindly to experiment because the windows just look like part of the background.
The minigames are merely annoying, though. Nothing came remotely close to actually ruining my game experience until I reached the Pirate Master’s dungeon (it isn’t really a proper dungeon so much as a collection of platforming rooms, but I’m counting it anyway), which is where I suddenly stopped having fun. This is the lowest point in not only this game, but the least amount of fun I’ve had in both of the two Shantae games that I’ve played combined. Basically, the platforming becomes so precise and prone to cheap little tricks that it’s not fun. It’s difficult, yes, but it never felt fair so much as needlessly punishing for the sake of being so. Take the room where you have to use Risky’s boots to dash over spikes (you’re invincible so long as you keep moving), but have to make the jumps to the next platform blindly. It becomes embarrassingly easy to slam into a wall you had no way of avoiding because of how fast you’re moving, and this whole section comes down to memorizing where to jump and where not to jump. Then there’s the section where you use Risky’s hat to float on upward air currents. There are spikes all around that you have to maneuver around, so you’re constantly pulling it out and putting it away to stay at the optimal height to get around the annoyingly close together hazards. That’s not the worst part, though. This screen only becomes a giant middle finger when you get to the very end expecting to float gently to the door, only to realize that the upward current stops suddenly. The only way to get to the door is to float up high before the current disappears, and going through the entire screen only to fall into the pit in front of the door and have to do the entire thing over again is such a massive, annoying waste of time that I can’t even imagine what could have possessed anyone to think this was good game design. There are a couple more rooms that fare similarly, with cheap tricks and tight areas of spikes you have to squeeze through, and all of it is just terrible.
The graphic and music are great, as always
Just like in Risky’s Revenge, the music is top-notch and gives the game a lot of personality. The graphics are even more detailed than those in the previous game, with higher quality heart and money indicators and the aforementioned larger range of character art that allows for more unique reactions to each situation. The art also gives a ton of personality to all of the different islands, allowing them to all be memorable in their own way. This ends up being surprisingly helpful when you’re looking for Cacklebats that you missed because they’re often hidden in places you can’t reach when you first visit, and the uniqueness of each area makes it easier to remember to visit those areas when you gain the upgrades necessary to get to them. Everything just fits together cohesively and naturally, and that’s rare in gaming.