Review: Shantae: Risky’s Revenge – Director’s Cut
I know if I sit down for a metroidvania, I’m going to be collecting stuff. It might be keys or souls or artisanal cheeses but I get that I’ll have to scour the map to nab things to proceed. Some games do this really well, with clever shortcuts between areas or unique new ways to traverse the same rooms. And some games don’t, leaving you to backtrack through the same places endlessly. Shantae honestly doesn’t even try for the former, electing to stick you with the latter in a criminally small world brimming with junk that other people want you to get. It’s a really nice world, too, which makes it all the worse that it’s designed so poorly.
Risky’s Revenge is the second game in the series from what I understand, but don’t let that get you down because the story is simple enough. You play the bouncy Shantae, the half-genie protector of sunny seaside Scuttle Town. Her uncle unearths a magic lamp that gets snatched by Risky Boots, Shantae’s pirate nemesis, and so the task before you is to battle back against Risky, her mechanical pirate ship, and her gravity-defying breasts. Actually you won’t see much of her for most of the game, because the bulk of your time is spent collecting junk to keep away from Risky that she DEFINITELY won’t trick you into handing over in the end.
It’s a shame you don’t see more of Risky, actually, because the characters are perhaps the best part of the game. Shantae’s world is full of colorful, animated characters that love to quip about their lives and your life and their weird little habits. I’m impressed at how much personality they get between their unique appearances and their short but clever blurbs. Each of Shantae’s allies is distinct in character, from her kindly uncle to her falconer ally to her peppy zombie BFF. The townsfolk and other incidental characters all have their moments as well, just enough to make me wish more emphasis was placed on meeting people than scouring the world for items.
The ugly truth, if you haven’t cottoned to it yet, is that the game is one big item hunt, even moreso than most metroidvanias. Your very first task in the game is to find an item Shantae forgot about, and then from there it’s hours spent chasing three magic doodads so Risky can’t have them. You have to find more items to get to them, not just powerups and keys but lunches, tickets, lattes, and squids, too. They’re all scattered across a shockingly small world, so be prepared to hit every screen in the game at least twice to find different gewgaws to proceed. Seriously, there are only four paths out of town, one leads to Shantae’s house and the other three dead-end at the dungeons where the magical thingamabobs are.
Backtracking is what killed this game stone dead for me, because it is orders of magnitude worse than in just about any other game. Retreading old ground is a given in any metroidvania but a large map with intelligently-designed paths of progression will keep it to a minimum while making the most of the rooms that must be repeated. Risky’s Revenge, perched precariously on the opposite end of this spectrum, starts with a tiny, boring map and then crams as much junk into it as possible that requires multiple trips through the same areas. And these aren’t gentle fields or straight corridors to traverse, no, these are dozens of rail-thin platforms over a bottomless pit to tackle over and over, or a cave network that the useless map function leaves you to puzzle out for yourself when you have to return an hour later to find a new upgrade to proceed.
The dungeons are somehow even worse about this (yes I am not done talking about backtracking) and not just because they have literally no map. While one is simply a timed gauntlet of battles, the other two are a messy network of cris-crossing rooms and secret passages and keys to distant doors. The first is plenty confusing with its numerous side halls hiding essential keys and forced backtracking through cavernous rooms, but the last, oh my God the last. There are doors that lead to different places depending on switches you flip, and some can have four different destinations. One part requires you to find four keys before BACKTRACKING to a locked door, to find another two-part key that has you BACKTRACK almost all the way back to the entrance.
The only way I could get through Risky’s Revenge was by playing 30 minutes or so a night. The constant busywork of finding a new item to get another item so I could go back and get another item just wore on me too much. It’s a shame, too, because the rest of the game comes together with some cool animal powers, vibrant enemies, and a beautiful world to run around in. The presentation isn’t the best, with the fine pixel art clashing with the clean vectors of menus and dialog, but for a handheld port that’s hardly its worst sin. No, its worst sin is making you scramble over every inch of a tiny map again and again until boredom or apathy claim you. As lively as Shantae and her friends appear, they sure do waste a lot of their lives chasing junk and that’s not my idea of a good time.