In 2002, Shantae released for the Game Boy Color—a year after the Game Boy Advance already established the next step in the handheld market. It reportedly sold poorly, which would generally end any potential franchise out of a debut title. And yet, in 2020, the Shantae series now has four games in the last decade, after an eight-year dry spell between games one and two. An underdog story, a monumental comeback; however you wish to put it, the series has become an indie darling. Shantae and the Seven Sirens is the latest in the series, and this Switch review should reveal as much about its technicalities as Shantae’s outfits do on a gamely basis.
Having finished four out of the five, I consider myself a franchise veteran. Taking a flier on Risky’s Revenge some five or six years ago, the potential was apparent, which overflowed with Pirate’s Curse—a game I consider among my favorite Metroidvanias ever. The wait over Half-Genie Hero was agonizing, made even more so when the game, unfortunately, didn’t meet my expectations. With my hype meter toned way down for Seven Sirens, it became easier to go into it with a clear mind and conscience. While the disappointment with Half-Genie Hero still haunted me, the expectations set by the Pirate’s Curse always served as a reminder of WayForward’s proficiency as a game developer. After all, they developed River City Girls just last year, which turned out pretty good.
Story – Silly Serious or Seriously Silly
Most fans of the franchise know this, but for those uninitiated, Shantae narratives are typically pretty tongue-in-cheek. While instances of meta humor have been present since Risky’s Revenge (to my knowledge), they really began to roll with the wit and satire from Pirate’s Curse onward. Seven Sirens follows this same formula… except with a little bit of dramatic individuality. For the first time in a long time, one feels the true weight of the circumstances happening onscreen, without some short aside questioning Shantae’s current occupation. They still exist, only they seem fewer and farther between, and particularly condensed into one specific squid-like character.
Shantae is on vacation. With Uncle Mimic, Bolo, and Sky in tow, they come across a cozy town planning to throw a half-genie festival of sorts. No real context to it, it’s just happening, and Shantae is thus invited to participate. But alas! The time of the festival arrives and suddenly the half-genie participants sans Shantae mysteriously disappear! It’s up to our purple-haired protagonist to solve the mystery of their abduction and investigate rumors of a looming unknown threat. Y’know, general adventure stuff.
To try and earnestly establish a plot that resonates in any serious light may be too much to ask. On one hand, the franchise has historically been pretty cheeky about even its more diabolical situations—never taking issue with concocting memorably amusing conversations and events. On the other, Seven Sirens more than occasionally shies away from the overwhelming amount of meta-ness in favor of telling a more tonally-focused story, which may or may not alienate longtime fans. It’s less that this game isn’t funny and more that it lessens the attempts in trying to be funny. Playing Pirate’s Curse directly after this (I was inspired), I was taken aback not just by how humorous it was, but the sheer amount of attempts to be so. Here, that aspect feels more or less missing. Almost like writer (and co-creator/directer) Matt Bozon was phoning in the plot to focus on other aspects of the whole.
Something about Half-Genie Hero that muddled my own experience was how one-note a lot of the now-classic characters came off. That sense of expectation becomes commonplace and, as a result, uninteresting. While this isn’t quite the case with today’s review subject, it does still come off as a little uncaring. More accurately, a lot of veteran characters are pushed aside to make room for new characters. Each half-genie alternate to Shantae is given intricate designs/portraits, names, voice lines, and some manner of importance. And considering their “captured” status, they become embodied with a sense of accomplishment or duty. One doesn’t save these characters out of care, but through enticement. They provide you with rewards, and should you wish to talk them them afterwards, you can, by visiting one specific room in one specific town where you can update them on your journey. Otherwise, they kinda-sorta hide in the background to make room for the next in line.
Risky Boots, the nefarious villain in practically every game, also makes her vile return here… sporadically. Her placement in this game also comes off as force-fed, appearing as a mini-boss in every dungeon (those return, more on that later). Supplying Shantae with little bits of information at a time (for some reason), her role in the game is never made abundantly clear until pretty much the end. Was it at all a shock to find out? Not particularly, especially when the only reminders she even existed came with the repetitive mini-boss fights. The issue with having a supposedly large threat looming is that, without proper build-up or tension, it just comes off as thrown in. Risky Boots is a veteran threat, and it would be a crime to not include her, but here, it felt simply for the sake of it.
To wrap this whole section up neatly, I feel the story elements of Seven Sirens are among the weakest in the entire franchise. Dialogue isn’t particularly interesting or amusing (save Squid Baron), the story is pretty straightforward and occasionally abrupt, and the history of the franchise may shine this entry as among the blander narratives offered. Should there be one thing that feels inviting about picking this up, story is not one of them.
Gameplay – Powerful and Rich
Thus far, the tone of this review has been evidently negative. That changes here. Seven Sirens is not only an incredible blast to play, but I would wager that it’s the best-controlling Shantae game to date. Fluid, tight, and incredibly responsive controls make this a platforming adventure for the controller-inclined. Effective use of button-mapping, a plethora of different capabilities to make control more fast-paced, and a concise focus on making Shantae powerful make this a very pleasurable experience.
Taking inspiration from Risky’s Revenge, gone are the individual levels in favor of one large, connecting map. Much like its Metroidvania inspirations, this allows further immersion into the island that Shantae is exploring, with different types of aesthetics to discover and labyrinths to clear. Backtracking is in full, unfiltered force, but warp zones make the requirement more convenient. Still have to manually save, though, which is an interesting decision in this day and age. Random caves one can access with little puzzles to solve (think shrines in Breath of the Wild, but incredibly simplified) also return, providing goodies to collect. There is plenty to do on the overall map, providing completionists with lots of giddy experimentation.
One of the key changes done to highlight the aforementioned fast-paced capabilities is actually a subtraction. While it is tradition to have Shantae dance to access transformations, from a gameplay standpoint, it’s much more fluid to have it be automatic. Pirate’s Curse understood this (granted she didn’t have powers), and so does Seven Sirens. While the dance is incorporated, it’s only for situational circumstances where dance-infused powers can unveil goodies or effectively finish baddies. Otherwise, genuine transformations apply with the press of a button. Dashing across the screen, slamming onto the ground to break stones, and bouncing to new heights are only some of the things to look forward to doing on a near-infinite basis, and with such quick response time. Keeps the action coming, and makes the player feel more capable of themselves.
Maybe Too Powerful?
Some early user reviews for Seven Sirens paint the game as painfully too easy. To some degree, the manner of accessibility clashes with the veteran player mindset that adventures should pose some sort of challenge to reap skillful confidence. While fair in either direction, I did find the game almost hilariously simple. Baddies drop food items like no tomorrow, and one can simply pause the game and eat to heal whenever, pausing the action completely. It boils the most prominent strategy for taking down enemies down to just spamming the attack button. I also took issue with some of the accessibility choices with Half-Genie Hero, though that was more focused on its linear direction and design. The irksome nature of “dumbing things down” didn’t resonate within me playing this, though had I played this years ago, it definitely could have.
Similar can be said for boss fights, which, historically speaking, should be harder or take more effort to defeat. More effort, sure, but certainly not any more complicated. Bosses’ move patterns are pretty simple to figure out, and considering one has likely stocked up on millions of poke bowls, if any threat of death exists, they can cancel it out immediately. Opportunities to spam the boss’s weakpoint are also pretty prominent, as opposed to opportune windows that one can miss out on.
On a non-violent note (though violence is a means to retrieve them), grinding for gems (currency) in Seven Sirens has been nerfed, too. Need any sub-items to add to your artillery? Kill things in individual rooms for three minutes and you’ll have enough for something. Acquiring upgrades for Shantae’s hair whip has never been easier. For context, one starts off with a moderate whipping speed with a base 5 damage. Through item purchasing, one can upgrade both the whipping speed and power up to three times. I did so relatively early in the game, because why not? By the halfway point, I was already at 999 maximum gem capacity with nothing really to spend it on. Earlier games took much more time to build things up, as the gem spawn rate for enemies was much less lenient. If you’re of a hardcore mindset that spits upon the current destination of Pokémon games, Shantae seems to be taking subtle notes.
Graphics & Audio – Pretty Genie Go Wiggle
Shantae has a very distinct aesthetic to her and her games, but Seven Sirens can only be described in a very general and highly convoluted adjective: “Anime.” With an opening cutscene done by Studio Trigger (Kill la Kill, Little Witch Academia) and heavily anime-esque character portraits, the franchise has fully embraced the Eastern design… in part. The in-game details still hold some prominence of individuality, with an intriguing combo of chibi and colorful detail. It looks quite like how it did with Half-Genie Hero, only with some added 2D gloss to the backgrounds. The most prominent change to the Shantae series here? Occasional, but noteworthy animated cutscenes.
To clarify, Studio Trigger only did the opening cutscene. Additional game cutscenes were done by Top Peg and Studio Yotta (produced the Sonic Mania animated shorts). To be blunt, these cutscenes did not do it for me. Incredibly choppy and poorly overlayed with the vocal work, it looked more like a school project. Granted, WayForward is an indie developer and does not have all the resources in the world, but this is far below the type of quality I would expect from their games. Easy to appreciate the effort, but the end result was fairly hard to watch.
And to take one paragraph to address this, sexual fan service in the Shantae series isn’t a new thing. Showcasing the female body has been prominent since the beginning, and while contextually understandable, Shantae’s outfit is definitely doing it for some players. An interesting phenomenon happened during Half-Genie Hero: the team created Giga Mermaid. After this fact, the fanart (I’ll leave it general) came pouring in, which may or may not (my theory, no confirmation) have enticed WayForward to crank up the giant, anthropomorphic female bosses to maximum. Every boss in this game (to varying degrees) fit this moniker. To state it with the words affectionately put forth by my brother, the designers were “really horny.”
For the first time in its history, a Shantae game was not composed by veteran Jake Kaufman, who was “unavailable for this one.” Instead, Seven Sirens was composed as part of a team led by Professor Sakamoto, a well-known Japanese chiptune artist. This definitely shows, as the soundfont for some of the tracks in this game sound incredibly retro. It seems that despite Shantae‘s foray into the modern world, some measure of retro will stay attached to it. However, Kaufman’s brand of music is sorely missed here, as while some tracks have a nice flow to it, the entirety is fairly lackluster. For the Shantae series, that spells doom, as the soundtrack is one of its most common strong points. Some catchy beats as well as ambiance, Sakamoto’s attempts pale in comparison, though not for a lack of trying. “Laboratory,” “Sunken City Tour,” and “Mountain Travel East” are all pretty good.