One of the many books I probably shouldn’t have read as a youngster, but did anyway, was One Thousand And One Nights. I was a big fan of Disney’s Aladdin, and when I head that Aladdin came from this book (along with a bunch of other stories), I went and got myself a copy of it, sat down, and started reading.
Of course One Thousand And One Nights is to Disney’s Aladdin what Grimm’s Cinderella was to, well, Disney’s Cinderella. Only where Grimm’s story is bleak, dark, and a little more bleak, the stories in One Thousand And One Nights are sexy, if not downright erotic. Every second word in those stories drips with sensuality, so much so that it’s almost entirely because of that book that we in the west have developed the idea that fantasy Arabia should be about beautiful women in belly dancing costumes and dashing, lithe men, wielding scimitars as they float through combat like deadly, dashing, daring dancers.
It’s really quite ironic that One Thousand And One Nights was like that, given that the modern Middle East is known by so many in the west for being the polar opposite, and a region in which oppression of women, denial of sexuality, and brutality are the norm.
But I digress. Despite whatever damage that book did to my young psyche, I’ve forever since had a fascination and love for games, books and films that capture the decadence and sensuality of fantasy Arabia. It’s not easy to find stuff to indulge that fascination, however. It’s a rare source of inspiration for artists, with too many attempts at the genre degenerating into half-baked western action films/games/books, with a desert setting and some belly dancing costumes thrown in. Very few manage to capture the more subtle sensuality and are too risk adverse to go with the outright sexy to properly do the setting justice. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (the game, not the film), was one of the rare exceptions in recent times, but even subsequent Prince of Persia games have lost that X-factor that marks them out as examples of Arabian fantasy, and have consequently been great disappointments to me.
That is, fundamentally, why I like Shantae so, so much. It is a rarity. It’s a series that at a very fundamental level understants the exotic qualities of fantasy Arabia. It’s a very PG franchise, so it obviously lacks the overt eroticism of One Thousand And One Nights, but the exceptionally bright visuals and near-perfect soundtrack set the right atmosphere nonetheless. Furthermore, the catlike grace in which leading lady, Shantae, moves around, really puts the cherry on the theme and creates an immediate impression of authenticity to the style of storytelling found in One Thousand And One Nights.
Shantae herself is an exceptional protagonist. Sassy and a rare example of a female lead character who also happens to be clearly defined as a character from an ethnic minority, she’s distinctive and interesting, and a remarkably brave character from WayForward given how different she is in an industry that rarely rewards risk taking. She uses her hair as her primary attack, which is certainly not something you see in other platformers, and the enemies that she takes on are a unique bunch themselves.
Oh, and she wears a belly dancer’s costume, so it’s not like PG-friendly Shantae has lost all of that side of the literature characters she is derived from.
It is because the setting and character of Shantae: Risky’s Revenge is so distinctive that the game gets away with following a fairly standard Metroidvania platformer formula in most other respects. Shantae has freedom to explore her world, though she will need to unlock abilities to access some previously inaccessible areas. These abilities require Shantae to perform a belly dance to turn into an animal with abilities that human Shantae lacks, and it’s quite impressive that even though the game sticks to the Metroidvania formula so closely, it does at least put that formula into its own context so it doesn’t feel like a contrivance. Many lesser games fail at that hurdle and remind me at every turn that there’s artifical walls being stuck in the level design that I’ll need to come back later. The level design of Shantae, meanwhile, is a delight, being quite organic, and rarely did I come across an obsticle that made me roll my eyes at the pure gaminess of it all.
Boss battles also tend to be quite impressive in scope, though it is disappointing that some of their impact has been lost on the PlayStation 4. Shantae: Risky’s Revenge was originally a Nintendo DSiWare title, and though there has been work done on it to make it appropriate for the iPad and, now, PlayStation 4, it’s a bare minimum of effort. Rather than rebuild the enging to stretch the screen to a widescreen format, for example, there are ugly, distracting borders stuck on either side of the screen (yes, there’s an option to stretch the screen in the menu, but that’s an artifial stretching that looks ugly on the eyes). And, as I noted in my recent review of the Wii U Shantae title, I’m not sold on the pixilation effect that these games have in “HD.” WayForward knows how to do absolutely stunning HD platformers, such as what we saw with the DuckTales reboot. I want my Shantae to look like that, and not some random indie platformer, damnit.
These are minor complaints, though. The platforming is rock solid, and as I noted, I love the theme with a passion. I would like to see WayForward do something more narrative-heavy with Shantae, as I think she would be a spectacular lead in a RPG or similar, but as it stands this is my favourite 2D platformer series of all, and I’m glad to see that it’s now on PlayStation too.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld