Shantae: Riskey’s Revenge is probably the closest I’ve come to enjoying a Wayforward game.
It almost feels like a running joke at this point, that for as much as I want to and continually try there’s yet to be a game turned out by the developer that I didn’t largely despise. But I didn’t despise Shantae, and maybe that makes it more disappointing than all the developer’s other lackluster offerings, because Wayforward had finally seemed to begun to show a talent for game design beyond their consistently excellent presentations. And yet here I am, full of as many reservations of recommending this as ever, yet somehow even more saddened by them.
If you’ve missed the Shantae series (typically a handheld series going back to the Game Boy Color), you play as the titular shape-shifting, belly dancing, half genie Shantae, sole protector of the rundown but fairly pleasant Scuttle Town. As the subtitle suggests, pirate Risky Boots has returned to have her revenge (or maybe she just likes causing trouble for no reason) and thus you embark to find the conveniently scattered magical seals to stop her schemes and save the day.
Familiar? Yeah, sure, but for as limited as Shantae’s narrative is its characters are endearing enough and its writing fully aware of the tropes its playing with that I actually found it surprisingly fun, for what it is. Wayforward’s love of the female form continues to be on broad display, but in this instance its buxom heroine and compatriots are developed and cute enough that their bulbous chests don’t end up as 90% of their personality, which if nothing else is minor progress (though the amount of jiggling can still be more than a little silly at times).
The parts I wasn’t as in love with are predictably those which Wayforward had the most ground to make up with, that being the general design of the game at large. Shantae works as something of a compact exploration and upgrade focused platformer, but its aspirations are a bit too large to work within this framework. What at first seems to be a world full of hidden paths and secrets quickly dissolves to reveal one far smaller with little of interest to find, that’s an enormous chore to navigate.
The amount of backtracking that was crammed into such a short game is a little astonishing, with the majority of your time being spent warping to out of the way teleporters and then having to run back through several more screens until you finally arrive where you originally wanted. It’s baffling to me why the fast travel is as poorly implemented as it is, or why the map is so completely useless, keeping track of absolutely nothing (including your position on it). You’re essentially expected to either possess a photographic memory, take notes of every obstacle you couldn’t already pass, or tediously retread every location again and again as you unlock you moves but have no idea where to use them.
When you finally arrive in one of the handful of dungeons the game actually stops being nearly as monotonous, but with how short these moments are in the vast expanse of repetition and mindless navigation they were nearly insignificant beyond showcasing what could have been a much better game. The lack of a map in these sections is still fairly bothersome, but there’s some clever platform designs and the limited implementation of Shantae’s shape-shifting ability still allows for some interesting puzzles.
I feel like Wayforward came really close at times in making Shantae something worth playing, and maybe they succeeded in the sequel (or the one after that), but try as I might Risky’s Revenge is still quintessentially the developer’s work. Delightful spritework, fun characters, a phenomenal soundtrack, and so many poor design decisions it just makes me sad they haven’t been hired onto another studio yet to work solely in the areas they really excel at.