Shantae: Friends to the End (DLC) Review
Maybe it’s paranoid, but I’m starting to feel as though Half-Genie Hero and its accompanying DLC (Pirate Queen’s Quest and now Friends to the End) has been designed for the sole purpose of testing how far it can push into uncomfortably bad design before my enjoyment of the series is ruined. I’m certainly giving this DLC stuff far more leeway than I’d ordinarily be willing to give thanks to how brilliant I found Risky’s Revenge and Pirate’s Curse, and in a world where I never played through either of those games, it’s not inconceivable that both this review and the one for Pirate Queen’s Quest would be formatted in my three-column “bad review” format. I suppose that’s a circuitous way of saying that I’m not sure whether I love Friends to the End or hate its guts. Honestly, I think it’s a little of both. The story and characters are on the thin side, but nevertheless a step up from Pirate Queen’s Quest. The mechanics, meanwhile, are interesting, but the usual Shantae endgame difficulty spike (this has become a pun over time as each endgame incorporates more and more literal instant-death spikes) pushes them further than they can comfortably go. Which is to say that the last few levels are really bad.
The mind-invading power of friendship
Friends to the End begins with the construction of the Dynamo and the subsequent transformation of Shantae into the evil Nega-Shantae. In the base game, this arc was resolved almost immediately and without much fanfare. Friends to the End aims to explore how Shantae turned back to normal in more depth, and it involves her friends Sky, Bolo, and Rottytops leaping into her mind through some game-y contrivance made possible by dark magic. Lest we forget, we’re dealing with genies and magic and a series that focuses heavily on quirky, self-aware comedy, so this is one of those “wait, what?” moments that has to be accepted at face value because that’s how things work.
The three go traipsing around Shantae’s memories in order to find the good Shantae and help her break free of Nega-Shantae’s influence, and the focus here (both in the gameplay and story) is on teamwork. The three characters don’t have much in common outside of a friendship with Shantae, and there’s a lot of mistrust there, but they don’t have any genie powers to fall back on, so they’re forced to rely on each other to make it through Nega-Shantae’s memory manipulation. Which isn’t all that manipulative since boss fights play out almost identically to the ones in the base game, now that I think about it, but at least all of the boss dialogue and pre-stage dialogue is different than in the base game. If there’s a selling point outside of the low price, it’s the great dialogue.
Witnessing the events of Half-Genie Hero through the lens of Shantae’s memories can be incredibly amusing at times, such as when Bolo is made to watch his base game buffoonery and tries to bravado his way into a more flattering explanation of events, and there’s even a long-overdue callback to Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse involving Rottytops that doesn’t go into any significant depth (nothing does, really), but is almost enough to single-handedly make Friends to the End recommendable.
The world also feels more alive than in Pirate Queen’s Quest
One of the things that Pirate Queen’s Quest suffered from was how dead the world felt. Since Risky was going through levels after Shantae, none of the stuff that previously happened during the levels was happening anymore; no mermaids being created in the background, no chase sequence in the desert (which I wasn’t a fan of in the base game, but it really does make the area feel more inhabited), none of that. Friends to the End includes all of this, however, and between these little extra touches and the interactions of the three main characters, it largely avoids that same feeling of emptiness. The only things missing are a hub area, NPCs, and a trading sequence.
Linear level progression and no upgrades
Shantae games are often classed as “metroidvanias” because of their focus on returning to previous areas with new abilities to reach previously inaccessible parts, but that’s 100% gone now. While you can technically return to previous stages by opening the pause menu and manually returning to a previous area, the game otherwise takes you through levels one after the other Super Mario Bros-style, and there’s no reason to return to previously played levels; the only collectibles in Friends to the End are the Dream Squids, and not only are these obtainable on your first time through each stage, but they also do nothing outside of giving you an achievement and an extra 100% completion screen (which isn’t worth it because it’s identical to the normal game completion screen outside of some elements having been moved around slightly and blurred).
There’s no character progression here. Dream Squids don’t earn you more health or anything, so you’ll be playing through the entire game with three hearts that are shared between all three characters. The only things they don’t share are a magic bar (for their special moves—Sky can create a group of birds that surrounds her and deals light damage to any enemies who touch them, Rotty can eat a brain to restore health, and Bolo can shoot a ranged attack that bounces around) and different move sets. Sky’s attacks are weak, but go through walls, while Bolo and Rotty’s attacks don’t go through walls and have worse range, but are more powerful. Each character also has a special move that ties into the game’s more puzzle-ish stage design; Sky can throw an egg and decide when to hatch it to create a temporary platform, Bolo has a grappling hook that allows him to swing from rings and predefined points, and Rotty can remove her head and throw it through instant-death barriers to relocate her entire body. Combining their abilities to get through stages and grab Dream Squids (if only out of a grudging sense of completionism) is a mostly enjoyable experience, though the last few stages really do drop the ball and start to feel luck-based.
Temporary level-ups and the awful later stages
It might not have been entirely accurate when I said that there was no character progression, because there’s a bare-bones kind of level-up system that comes across as tacked on and awkward. Basically, each character has certain gem thresholds, and collecting that many gems levels them up. This allows Sky to shoot out more of her attack birds at once, whereas Bolo and Rotty’s attack power is increased slightly when they’re at a higher level. Bolo’s attack also gets a range increase at higher levels. The frustrating thing is that Friends to the End has decided to take a page from Sonic, so getting hit by enemies now means dropping gems, often causing you to lose a level in the process (which drags out the fight by rendering your attacks less effective). This isn’t a huge problem since anyone playing this DLC is likely familiar with all of the boss encounters already, but previous fights where you could shrug off a cheap hit or two have these flaws thrust to the forefront as they become much more notable setbacks.
The Ammo Baron fight in particular is filled with sudden movements that aren’t telegraphed ahead of time, and I can state with confidence that this is the worst part of the entire game when you’re trying to obtain the speedrun and speedrun 100% ending screens. That’s not to take anything away from the sheer badness of the endgame, however, which separates the characters to throw each through a three-screen gauntlet that stretches their abilities to their breaking point. Bolo’s first, and you quickly learn that the range of his grappling hook is limited enough that one or two jumps require perfect timing to reach the next hook. That’d be great if the physics of swinging around felt natural, but they don’t. Then there’s Rotty’s section, where the game decides that it no longer feels like pausing the game around you while you aim her head throws. You have to make a bunch of throws while on moving platforms, often trying to land on a different moving platform, and there’s even one point where you have to throw her head in such a way that it bounces over a gap while avoiding spikes (which suddenly damage her despite her previous mid-throw invulnerability). Finally, there’s Sky’s section, which at several points requires throwing an egg, jumping into the abyss without a safety net, and creating a platform under her that’s just high enough to reach the next platform. It also becomes painfully apparent that her (very) limited ability to float being tied to the jump button is a problem, as you can glide to a platform under some spikes, only for the game to interpret you holding the button down as a new jump, causing you to headbutt the spikes after landing and be sent back to the beginning. Naturally, each failure during these sections brings your health down slightly, eventually giving you a game over that sends you even further back. It’s one of the worst endgame sections in a Shantae game to date, evoking the same kind of almost-game-ruining awfulness of Shantae and the Pirate Curse’s endgame, only without the brilliant game preceding it.
The visuals and music are great, as always
The new characters are all wonderfully animated and have oodles of personality, though the reused stages are definitely starting to feel stale after the third time going through them. They’ve been remixed somewhat to better accommodate the new character moves, of course, but that’s simply not enough to avoid them evoking a “been there, done that” feeling. The music, however, struck me as being somewhat different, though I couldn’t quite place it. The game’s page on Wayforward’s site claims that the DLC includes “fan-favorite musical selections from Shantae’s past,” but I’m not entirely sure what that means. The obvious conclusion would be that tracks from previous games play instead of the usual ones, but there’s so much stylistic similarity between each of the games’ soundtracks that it’s impossible for me to tell if that’s the case. Shrug. Let’s assume it is.