I took a couple days away from the site to catch back up on sleep after the past 2-3 months of daily updates started to take their toll. Besides that, the new Shantae: Half-Genie Hero DLC’s release date was close enough that getting into something new seemed like a bad idea, though I’m honestly not entirely certain when this thing released; a press release I received said December 12th, but I managed to buy it on the 11th despite it not showing up in Xbox’s search results for some reason, and I noticed other people playing before that point somehow. Talk about nebulous.
Attack of the secondary characters
Friends to the End is 8 bucks (USD, obviously), and yet it’s arguably better from a story perspective than the slightly more expensive Pirate Queen’s Quest; rather than being framed by an unreliable narrator, this DLC ties into the base game’s canon by explaining how Sky, Bolo, and Rottytops saved Shantae after the Dynamo turned her into her evil Nega-Shantae form. If that mashup of names and terminology didn’t tip you off, this DLC requires familiarity with the base game’s events to get the most out of it, though at least one reference tied all the way back to Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse. Put simply, this is targeted at fans already invested in the series.
I saw a comment somewhere that Friends to the End is Trine: Shantae Edition, and that’s actually a surprisingly accurate way of describing it. You technically play as all three characters at once, switching between them in real time to use their unique abilities to get past hazards, deal with enemies, and collect Dream Squids. There are no items to use, no equipment to obtain—the gameplay here is more akin to a physics puzzler than an ordinary Shantae game, and it works for the most part.
Sky can send birds out as the trio’s weakest attack (though it’s the fastest and can even do damage to enemies through walls), as well as throw an egg to create a temporary platform. These platforms time out and disappear before long, but the timer freezes when someone’s standing on it. Oh, and she has the ability to float (barely), making her the best of the three for platforming. Bolo’s normal attack is a spiked ball, which does a medium amount of damage. He also has a grappling hook that he can use to swing around on, though he automatically lets go if he hits something, and the swinging physics are really awkward. Finally, Rottytops’ attack is a kick that does the most damage of the three, but has the worst range. Her special ability is taking her head off and throwing it to relocate her body elsewhere, which grants her temporary invulnerability and is therefore the only way through certain one-hit kill barriers. The physics behind throwing her head can be imprecise, but this is countered somewhat by the game freezing time to let you aim.
Dream Squids don’t have an obvious purpose. When you first collect one, it tells you that “you never know what might happen” if you collect many of them, and the game tracks how many you’ve obtained in each part. I missed one of the earliest ones, but you can freely return to previously-played levels, so I’m using it as an opportunity to finish the game both with and without all Dream Squids collected to see if it has an effect on the ending. It must, right? What other purpose could these things serve?
Some things that suck
Dream Squids certainly don’t increase your health like they have in the past. In fact, there is no way to increase your health, which is weirdly limiting. Rottytops has a special attack where she eats a brain to recover everyone’s shared health, but it comes at a steep magic cost (though each character has their own individual magic bar rather than sharing), and swapping between characters in combat to pull something like that off before getting hit again is just endlessly awkward.
Especially since getting hit causes a reduction in attack power; the game tracks how many gems each character has and they individually “level up” at certain gem thresholds, though what that means isn’t always clear. I think Bolo and Rotty have stronger attacks when they level up, but Sky’s attacks appear to remain the same (so what’s the point?). Whenever one of them gets hit, they drop a few gems and have a chance to pick up a few of them Sonic-style, and while this mishmash of gameplay systems is certainly interesting, the cheap shots can turn things ugly.
There are some issues with spawning and such that can lead to moments where you’re damaged for reasons entirely out of your control. For example, in the video above, Rotty throws her head through one of the barriers only she can pass through, only for an enemy (who wasn’t visible when everything froze to let her aim) to fly over during her unskippable animation, dropping fire onto her before I was given back control. That’s not remotely okay when you have so little health to work with.