Developer: WayForward | Publisher: WayForward | Genre: Metroidvania | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Apple Arcade | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch
Much like the hips of its eponymous belly-dancing half-genie protagonist, the Shantae series is prone to shaking things up. Each game in WayForward’s iconic series of charming Metroidvania has put its own distinct spin on the formula, to the point that the last mainline entry, Half-Genie Hero, was hardly a Metroidvania at all. Shantae and the Seven Sirens bucks this experimental trend, however, by taking the very best mechanics from the rest of the games and putting them together in one glorious package. It is at once more streamlined and more expansive than any Shantae game before it, focused single-mindedly on everything that makes Shantae great while cranking its ambitions up to 11. There’s no two ways about it: Seven Sirens is easily the best in the series yet.
Shantae and the Seven Sirens sees Shantae and her friends taking a break from saving the world to enjoy a tropical vacation on an exotic island, where Shantae enters a festival for half-genies like herself. But before long, catastrophe strikes and all the other half-genies vanish, leaving it up to Shantae to venture into the massive sunken city below the island to find her friends and face the mysterious Seven Sirens.
As is typical for the series, Seven Sirens’ story isn’t too deep or grandiose. You won’t sit around in lengthy conversations discussing complex lore or deep character development; instead, it’s a briskly paced romp to defeat the Seven Sirens and rescue the half-genies. At the same time, that means that it doesn’t provide much context for new players. The game assumes familiarity with its cast of primary characters and their relationships to each other, so series newcomers might feel a bit lost at first. However, these characters are far more charming than they are complex, so it likely won’t be too difficult for players to get up to speed and get engaged in the storyline. The narrative does all that it needs to do: it introduces new characters and sets up an all-new adventure, and it does so with all the charm and humor that has made Shantae so beloved over the years.
Where the story does get more ambitious, however, is in its presentation. This is evident even before you see the title screen, as it greets you with its gorgeous animated cutscenes, a first for the series. These short clips are used sparingly throughout the adventure and rarely last more than a few seconds, but they go a long way toward making each major story beat feel that much more impactful and make the world of Shantae feel grander than ever before in the series.
For its equal amounts of polish and ingenuity, Shantae and the Seven Sirens could easily rank as one of the finest Metroidvanias on the market.
And what a world it is. Shantae and the Seven Sirens returns to the beloved Metroidvania formula of the earlier games and executes it masterfully. Seven Sirens hardly holds your hand throughout the adventure—you’re set free to fully explore the island surface, and the sunken city beneath it, within the first five minutes of the game. As is typical for its genre, your world starts exceedingly small, but as you gain new power-ups and abilities, it gradually unfolds itself and offers its secrets for the discovering. This engenders a constant sense of exploratory euphoria by enabling you to make discoveries without ever pushing you directly, letting every achievement be solely your own. The world is designed with remarkably little fluff–as expansive as it is, it also feels streamlined such that every hallway, every crevice, and every room feels significant, as if they each hide treasures of their own.
And in the midst of world exploration, the dungeons are a special highlight as they also make their grand return after being absent in Half-Genie Hero. They’re filled with light brainteasers, platforming and combat challenges that task you to make the most of every tool in their arsenal. Even if the Sirens that await at the end tend to be underwhelming boss battles at best, dungeons nonetheless go a long way towards offering up new kinds of exploration gameplay.
Streamlined execution ensures that Shantae’s new abilities make the gameplay even faster and more dynamic
Shantae comes equipped with a whole roster of brand-new abilities to learn in Seven Sirens. Animal transformations and dancing abilities both make a return from previous entries in the series, but their implementation is brilliantly streamlined this time around. Shantae can transform into different creatures to aid in her exploration of the world, and these transformations simply require a single one-button command to execute. You can dash through the air as a newt with a single click of the shoulder button, or drill through the sand by simply pressing down, for example. This simplicity ensures that abilities make the gameplay even faster and more dynamic, a far cry from the elaborate, momentum-stopping dances required for transformations in previous games.
Dancing, meanwhile, plays a more nuanced but important role. This time around, dances function to summon genie spirits to support you, whether that be by revealing hidden platforms, shaking the earth, or zapping everything in the room with a bolt of lightning. They can feel a bit unbalanced, however: some of them are easy to forget about, whereas others (like the lightning dance) feel extremely overpowered–being able to wipe out an entire room of enemies at little cost ends up trivializing some combat encounters, especially later in the game.
The most significant gameplay addition is the Monster Cards, which can be collected from fallen monsters and equipped to grant Shantae specific status buffs, such as eliminating damage taken from spikes or increasing the effectiveness of certain items. However, if you prefer to keep Seven Sirens free of such RPG-lite elements, then you’re never directly required to use them. That being said, their upgrades add a much-welcome element of strategy to the game and their collectible nature adds a nice incentive to keep exploring the world to find them all.
Bringing the World to Life
Better yet, this world is inhabited by Shantae’s typically charming cast of characters. Some are series mainstays like the adorably mischievous Squid Baron, whereas others (like the eponymous Seven Sirens, or Shantae’s newfound half-genie friends) are entirely original additions to the cast. New or old, every character is infused with the series’ signature brand of slightly off-color yet strangely wholesome humor, where dancing can inspire hope “that transcends even strict content age ratings” and where the mysteries of the ocean are described as “the Mom and Dad’s room of water.” If the gameplay somehow doesn’t hook you, then the characters likely will.
The ultimate cherry on top of all this is the presentation, which is similarly glamorous. Screenshots don’t do it justice, as the graphics might seem like only a slight upgrade from Half-Genie Hero when viewed as images, but in motion, the game is smoother than Shantae’s dancing prowess. Characters have extremely fluid and lovingly designed animations that make every enemy and NPC vibrantly spring to life. The luscious character portraits shown during dialogue are similarly beautiful, shimmering with artistic splendor that really accentuates the series’ signature anime-inspired art direction. It’s technically solid as well–I reviewed it on Switch, and even there it had rock-solid performance and sharp visuals.
The music is the only slight blemish on this presentation. While Jake Kaufman supplied the iconic tunes for the previous games, his work is absent from this title, and it shows. Much of the soundtrack adopts a strangely chiptune-inspired sound, which certainly isn’t bad in its own right, but feels somewhat out of place compared to the lush modern graphics. There are still a handful of standout songs, but for the most part they fail to live up to the standard of high production values and catchy tunes set by previous games.
Her Best Showing Yet
But such a small complaint can hardly detract from the merits of this relatively substantial adventure. It took me just over nine hours to see the ending credits, yet that was without fully exploring every room or collecting every item. I had only 60% completion when I beat the final boss, so I could easily imagine a few hours being added to that run time.
Even then, those nine hours flew by, as the game was a joy from beginning to end. What makes it feel so remarkable is how seamlessly and elegantly it cuts to the core of what makes Shantae, and, by proxy, the whole Metroidvania genre, so special. Its world is streamlined yet packed with constant opportunities for discovery, its dances and transformations make Shantae a more versatile hero than ever, its personality is as distinctly silly as it’s ever been, and its presentation is second to none. For its equal amounts of polish and ingenuity, Seven Sirens could easily join the ranks of indie darlings like Hollow Knight as one of the finest Metroidvanias on the market.
Shantae and the Seven Sirens puts on a remarkable show: it manages to incorporate everything that worked from the previous games while polishing them up and making them even better than before, while leaving out the few blemishes that tarnished their prior reputation. It’s a glorious celebration of everything that makes Shantae great, and even newcomers will be able to appreciate its fine-tuned gameplay, sharp sense of humor, and gorgeous visuals. Shantae’s been dancing for nearly two decades now, but with Seven Sirens, she’s offered her very best performance yet.