Shantae: Pirate Queen’s Quest (DLC) Review
Half-Genie Hero’s DLC is one of those things that I was really looking forward to, but that I came into with reservations. The reasons for this mostly hinged on the gameplay that I’d seen before release involving pirate queen Risky, the DLC’s playable character, fighting off waves of her own Tinkerbats in the game’s first level despite that not making a great deal of sense. On the surface, it appeared to be a lazy way of not having to change things up too much from the base game, but I decided to give the DLC a chance anyway, and it managed to flit back and forth between validating and debunking my initial gut feeling. Pirate Queen’s Quest has redeeming elements, such as a great final boss fight and some Risky hijinks that subtly manage to pull her back a bit from the uncomfortably senseless malice she showed in the base game (which felt wrong after the events of Pirate’s Curse), and the upgrade mechanics really allow you to break the game in an entertaining way, but the chest placement and overall lack of an interesting plot or story resolution hold it back in a big way. If you’re already crazy about the series, this is an obvious “buy” regardless. If you’re not, it’s probably best to wait for a sale.
A slightly softer Risky, but no supporting cast
One of the things that really bothered me about Half-Genie Hero’s writing was how Risky was handled, coming across more as her Risky’s Revenge (and presumably GBC original) portrayal despite Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse being a giant team-up between the titular hero and pirate queen. Pirate Queen’s Quest seems to walk that meanness back, with Risky acknowledging toward the end that the things she did to Shantae aren’t likely to keep her from interfering. It’s one of those little touches, but an important one that suggests a more palatable, almost playful reason for her apparent cruelty in the base game: like the dynamic between the Joker and Batman, the villain here recognizes that the do-gooder isn’t likely to stay down, so it’s more of a stalling tactic in their grand game of cat and mouse than a genuine attempt to cause lasting harm.
Or maybe I’m reading too much into things. The story has never been the focal point of Shantae games despite the enjoyably lighthearted events that have occurred over the past few, and that’s never been as true as in Pirate Queen’s Quest. The only real story here is at the beginning and end, and while things are set up so that Risky is going through levels after Shantae has already been through them and meeting a small handful of the same characters, it’s almost entirely fluff. Enjoyable fluff—Squid Baron is awesome as always, and a few other characters similarly live up to their weirdly charming previous appearances—but there’s a distinct lack of interaction on display.
I mean, Risky’s joined by her mute Tinkerbats whose ellipses only she seems capable of understanding, and the game’s central hub is just her in a bathtub surrounded by them. There are no NPCs cracking jokes to run around and find, no increasingly crazy item trades necessary to progress the story. The only interactions between Risky and anyone else, then, are at the very beginning and end of each level, and only on the first time through (obviously you’ll have to return to areas once you’ve acquired new items that let you reach their previously inaccessible chests). That means that there’s a not-insignificant chunk of the game before you unlock the very last level where you’re busy on a scavenger hunt that’s entirely devoid of the series’ quirky characters. It leaves the world feeling a bit soulless and empty for that part of the game. Very un-Shantae.
Of course, the gameplay makes up for that a bit
Shantae games aren’t merely a bunch of wacky characters being larger than life, though. There’s also a strong focus on tight gameplay, and this was at its absolute best when Pirate’s Curse did away with the slow process of turning into an animal to overcome obstacles. Having all of your abilities at your fingertips without the need to stop and transform was a big deal (and while Half-Genie Hero sped up the process, it still felt like a step back), so one of the bigger draws of Pirate Queen’s Quest is that it sees the return of several of these abilities in addition to a small handful of new ones. The cannon jump returns as an unlockable ability, and the same is true of the pirate hat that’s used to float. Risky begins the game able to use her flintlock pistol, while the scimitar functions as her default attack rather than allowing you to destroy blocks underneath you.
As for the new abilities, Risky can unlock a grappling hook that lets her zip up onto the ceiling (or onto platforms, depending on whether the platform is solid or the kind that can be dropped through by pressing down and the jump button), and also a bomb that serves as a replacement for Shantae’s elephant form by allowing you to destroy blocks/fire-breathing statue heads. There’s even a “kraken ball” that lets Risky move underwater, which is handled like underwater sections in a Megaman game. That’s fitting, of course, given the steps Half-Genie Hero took in that direction.
A new ability is unlocked whenever you defeat one of the game’s bosses, which are identical to those in the base game (save for their pre-fight descriptions) with the single exception of an all-new final boss fight. The stages can be tackled in any order, as well, though why you’d want to do so is beyond me since the later ones are incredibly hard without the first few abilities you gain. The items you unlock at the end aren’t tied to that particular level, either, so you’ll end up getting the pirate hat after your first level regardless of whether you went through the easy first level or the tricky platforming and tougher boss fights of later ones. There’s really no point to switching things up since you’ll have to return to levels once you have all of the abilities in order to pick up all of the Genie Crystals (necessary for plot progression) and Dark Magic (used for upgrading) that you initially missed. Why make it difficult for no reason?
The upgrade system has some good and some bad to it
Of course, returning to later stages once you have everything unlocked can lend itself to some amazing moments of catharsis as you blow through sections that previously required precise timing. That’s really the best and worst of Pirate Queen’s Quest—it can be absolutely broken (whether in your favor or not) because of the way it handles item upgrades. Pirate gear, health, basic attack damage, pistol speed and damage, and pretty much everything else can be upgraded from its base level of no stars up to three stars, which can be a night-and-day difference. The cannon jump gives you extra jumps for each piece of Dark Magic you put into it. Upgrading the pirate hat gives you a bigger upward boost when you pull it out and causes you to fall more slowly. For every moment where you realize you haven’t upgraded enough to grab a chest so close that you can hit it with your sword, the combination of those two pieces of pirate gear when fully upgraded can be stunning and render entire sections of the game a joke.
Not all pieces of gear are that helpful when upgraded, though. I upgraded the grappling hook and couldn’t tell you the difference between when it was fully upgraded and not upgraded at all. The kraken ball seems to give you a slightly higher underwater jump, but that becomes fairly meaningless once the cannon jump is at three stars.
There’s also a strange inconsistency to the item descriptions that makes it impossible to tell what upgrading some of them actually accomplishes. One item explains that it gives Risky more ammunition for her secondary firing modes (including a spread shot and homing missile that you pick up ammo for in place of money), but the cannon jump merely says that upgrading it will cause Risky to jump higher. This is incredibly vague considering the gameplay differences of a single improved jump and a double/triple/quadruple jump. It’s ultimately a minor problem, but it never ceases to feel like a mistake when figuring out the benefits of upgrades requires trial and error.
But again, for how bad that sounds, it’s almost worth it considering how awkward the game’s early platforming can be. Things go smoothly if you follow the base game’s level order, but trying to switch things up (as I had to do to verify that items are given to you in a set order rather than determined by the stage you beat) can quickly become a nightmare without tools like the pirate hat in your arsenal. We’re talking split-second jumps, awareness of Risky’s position when she isn’t visible, and other such craziness.
The graphics and music are basically the same
If there’s new music here, I certainly didn’t notice it. There’s definitely some graphical stuff that’s been changed (including switches to make platforming slightly more like in Pirate’s Curse, and a home base screen that shows the treasure-filled interior of Risky’s ship), but it’s still by and large the same stuff from the base game. Don’t get me wrong, I found Pirate Queen’s Quest enjoyable overall, but little things like this dampened my enthusiasm quite a bit. Like, instead of doorways leading to the side areas that required clever usage of Shantae’s animal forms in the base game, chests are often just sitting there without the need to do anything but cannon jump your way to them.
Between the absence of many characters, the reused boss fights/levels, and those little challenges not bothering to provide a challenge anymore for some reason, Pirate Queen’s Quest’s 10-dollar asking price is bound to prove a bit too high to all but the most die-hard of Shantae fans, which I most certainly am. Still, I can’t bring myself to sugarcoat this: Half-Genie Hero felt like it was starting to head in the wrong direction after Pirate’s Curse despite being an incredibly enjoyable game when taken on its own, and Pirate Queen’s Quest feels like further proof that the series could soon end up being streamlined to the point where it loses all of the things that make it special.