January 14, 2018 at 1:04 pm #14539
Spoiler warning! I will be talking about the events of both Pirate Queen’s Quest and Friends to the End so if you haven’t played them, you may want to skip this.
(Quick note for those that are reading this that may not have read my other review (if you have read it, you can skip this note), I wrote a heavily negative critique on Half Genie Hero’s other DLC, Pirate Queen’s Quest that was entirely focused on the story because I didn’t play it. I didn’t play it because I learned beforehand about the terribly depressing ending of PQQ and couldn’t bring myself to play it. The gameplay might have been good. Don’t know, don’t care. Then after watching a play through of it, I wrote my review of the story and other writing aspects. I mention this because I will be referencing my thoughts on PQQ in this review as a comparison on some points.)
Seriously: spoilers ahead! Also a warning, this is quite long.
Since I wrote such a lengthy review about Pirate Queen’s Quest (something I didn’t like), it’s only fair that I write a similar review of Friends to the End (something I did like). After all, people don’t know they’re doing something wrong if we don’t tell them. Likewise, they don’t they are doing something right without us telling them either and Friends to the End is definitely something done right. Where to start?
I guess I’ll begin with the three playable characters. First is Rottytops. One of the few things I disliked about FTTE comes from her. I mentioned before that the Shantae series’ humor has never really been my thing. I’ve chuckled here or there, I’ve said “that’s kind of amusing” out loud to no one, but nothing has ever had me rolling on the ground laughing. I’ve always been into the series because of its cheerfulness and charm. But Rottytops’s gameplay design in FttE fits in the “not my style” category. She throws her head to sort of teleport, she pulls off her leg to melee people, and she eats brains to regain health. While I understand that it’s all flavorful for her being a zombie, it’s all very unappealing to me. (Actually one thing I like about Rotty and her brothers is that for all their talk of being Zombies, they don’t do the typical Zombie things.) Especially unappealing is the whole “throwing her head” thing. I was not looking forward to her gameplay at all. That being said, her gameplay was a lot more fun than I expected. Their presentation really sold it. The surprised look on Rottytops’ face when her body rejoins her is adorable. And the way the melee attack was animated just really fit and was fun. The health regen animation, I still didn’t like, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared.
But enough of the aesthetics of her gameplay, how did it play? Wonderfully! It’s my opinion that Rotty was the best of the three, both in how she played and in her strengths. Her melee attack when at max level just tore apart everything, bosses included. Her pseudo-teleport was not only extremely useful, but was so much fun to do. The physics worked well and made sense, and the little bounce when landing gave additional options for how to use it, but also forced you to aim well for the smaller platforms. (Also, it was very helpful that the game actually freezes while you line up the shot.) It was so satisfying to make a good throw to get through a platforming section, or to succeed at the difficult throws in the sections that required it. A friend of mine came over and watched as I played through it and by the end of it, anytime I did something good or cool with Rottytops (such as nailing one of the moving platform throws in the last section on the first try), he would go “Rottytoooops!” with a tone that I can only describe as “aggressive enthusiasm.” So, she was a lot of fun to play. Much more than I expected, considering my concerns.
Sky is next. The boomerang attack birds were probably my favorite attack (though Rotty was still stronger) just because it was rapid fire and hit twice. I tend to prefer characters with quicker attacks in most games. And the bird platform was interesting to use. There have been a number of platformers in the past that give the player the ability to make platforms to progress, so it’s nothing truly new there. But the limitation on it (the arc and the timing) is where it becomes more interesting. Since you can’t make them anywhere and instead have to abide by the throwing arc, it makes it harder to use and sort of like a puzzle. It was frustrating at first to get used to (I can’t count the number of times I made the platform just too high for me to get on to), but once I figured out the timing it was fairly fluid. And the fact the platform doesn’t last very long if you weren’t on it added an urgency to the platforming with it. Conversely, the platforming lasting forever so long as you stood on it was also good because it made it fairer. Her magic, the rotating bird shield, was not really all that useful. Since she’s ranged, she had no reason to be right on enemies. Now that I think about it, does it block projectiles? I didn’t try. Anyway, the only real use I found for it was Ammo Baron. It really helped to shred his shield of goons.
Finally, Bolo. I have the least to say about Bolo. Like the other two, he played well. Not too clunky, and his actions made sense for who he was. He’s just kind of bland. His main mechanic that he has in the game was his grappling hook. Many games have done the “Bionic Commando” swing mechanic. Some well, some poorly. Bolo’s are fine, but nothing was really added to it to make it stand out. Not a criticism really, just nothing to praise either (other than it works smoothly.) His attack was a middle ground between Sky and Rotty in both the damage output and the range. His magic attack was slightly more useful than Sky’s for hitting the bosses that weren’t at ground level all the time, but generally speaking I rarely used it.
From a more general overview, the gameplay was really solid. The platform edges were generous enough that they didn’t feel unfair, but still tight enough that you’d fall off if you got lazy about your timing. From a control aspect, all three were really smooth. You push the buttons to do something and generally the thing you wanted to do, happens. I think there was only twice where I fell off a platform without jumping. Once was absolutely my fault, the other I swear I pushed the button, but other than that I had no issues. The character switching was really smooth. No overly long animation, just press a button and poof, about a half second later you are in control of the next character. It really did not break the flow of the game. Even when I accidently switched to the wrong character and had to perform a second switch, I didn’t feel like the gameplay was interrupted. (Side note, the sound effect was appropriate and not annoying. Which is good, because you hear it a lot.) One note is that you can only switch characters on the ground, which isn’t even a criticism. Being able to change characters and use some of their actions in the air would have made the game very different to accommodate the extra movement options. The levels would have been designed differently. Not that it would have been better, or FTTE was worse for not having it, just it would have been different.
The stage layouts were obviously very similar to the stages in the main game, which made sense since they are Shantae’s memories. Knowledge of the main game’s stages helped to find some of the Dream Squids in FTTE. I’d say the levels were sufficiently changed to accommodate the trio’s movement abilities. They could have made completely new stages that were 100% twisted by the dark magic (That is to say completely rearranged so as to not resemble the original at all), but I don’t fault them for the method they took. Same with the bosses. Unlike in PQQ, it makes complete sense as to why we are fighting the exact same bosses as Shantae did as these are her memories. Again, they could have made some changes to show that the memories were being twisted (and actually the bosses weren’t 100% carbon copied, some of them had some new patterns), but doing it this way is at least understandable, even if I’d have preferred different fights.
All of this is not to say that the gameplay didn’t have its flaws too. One issue I had with Bolo was that I kept wanting to hold diagonally-up to shoot his claw at an angle, but not only do you not need to do that, if you do, he shoots straight up instead of at an angle which made me miss a lot of hook shots. And also, the individual stages at the end are a kind of an unfair jump in difficulty. Not because the things you needed to do were exceptionally hard, but because you didn’t need to do them ever before that point in the game. Rottytops bank shot to get to another spot? Only once in the whole game. (Which is a shame.) Rottytops throwing her head at moving platforms, only in that section. Having to create a bird platform while on a moving platform and quickly jump on to it? Only in the Sky-only section of the game. Bolo didn’t really have anything new in his section that stood out to me. His was a breeze. But the point is that this is kind of artificial increase in difficulty because it’s only hard because these tricks never came up earlier in the game for us to be able to get any practice in on. If they had, the last section still would have been more difficult than the rest of the game, but it wouldn’t have been such a large jump in difficulty. Also, while the game balance is pretty good, once you realize that you can abuse the period of invulnerability that Rottytops has while teleporting to dodge enemy attacks, the bosses become MUCH easier.
But those and a few other minor flaws aside, the gameplay is solidly programmed, and the whole thing was an immense amount of fun.
Now for my favorite part: the story. THIS is absolutely done right.
I said in my review of PQQ’s story that one of the biggest problems is it just didn’t make any kind of sense on a number of topics. Why was she going to each of the stages? Why was she fighting the exact same bosses AFTER Shantae did? There were reasons (for some, not all), but they just didn’t fit. People might argue that it was non-canon and/or a lie by Risky to save face, so it didn’t have to make sense. But the problem with that argument is it could have easily made sense if they had put in a little effort and done a different story for it. The story of PQQ just felt like they didn’t try.
Absolutely not the case in FttE. The story starts at the point that Shantae was turned evil. I think the dialogue was a little different from the main game. It’s been a while since I played it so I’m not sure. I suppose it was done to start defining their characters for the DLC a little more. Much like with Rotty’s gameplay I was a little worried about Rotty’s personality here. When she says something about “leaving you two slowpokes behind” in the trailer, I was like “Is that really how she is?” I know she’s a trouble maker, but still I wasn’t sure I liked how antagonistic she was. And also, I know that Sky and Rotty have a problem with each other, but I thought Sky and Bolo more or less got along (Bolo’s incompetence aside) and Bolo I thought fawned over attention from Rotty like he does from just about any female in the cast. So I was a little worried about their interactions.
However, once I began playing it, their interactions came off as very natural to me. And it kind of made sense anyway since, even if I was right about their relationships (which I’m probably a little off about), they were all in a high stress situation. People can act out in situations like that. I really enjoyed their interactions. Of course I didn’t really like that they were fighting at all, because I like them all, but it was a good backdrop for them all to grow into better friends by the end of the story.
Speaking of the story, I think this story was very well written. Since the events of this game are canon with the main game, the ending was a forgone conclusion. Even still, the writers did a good job of not letting the whole plot be obvious. For the first few levels I was questioning if Risky had some sort of involvement into what the characters were seeing. Or if there was some other force controlling the memories. It slowly became clear that Nega-Shantae was in fact manipulating everything the characters saw. And then near the end when Nega-Shantae made Real Shantae “disappear” it was presented in a way that made me wonder “did she really make her disappear and we bring her back? Or is she just lying?” The story had questions, and that helped keep it from being boring.
The banter between the three at the beginning and end of each stage was littered with fun little jokes and character development. I enjoyed most of the scenes as they all helped to show their personalities in some way. (Actually the only one I didn’t care for was the Tassel Town intro. That one seemed implausible, at best.) I have to say that hands down my favorite scene in the whole game was the scene at the start of the Carpet Races. Usually endings are my favorite scenes in a story, but this scene was definitely my favorite in the game. When it’s revealed that Shantae sees Rottytops as her human side, she sees her as no different than her other friends, it made me go “Awwww!” in a good way. She doesn’t see the troublemaker Zombie everyone else sees, she sees her just as another person, as a friend. She sees Rottytops for who she is, not what she is. Shantae is just that awesome of a person. And I could just feel how that revelation makes Rottytops feel.
And then of course, the ending of the game. It truthfully wasn’t anything amazingly special, but that’s for a couple of reasons. One, most of the ending was what we already saw in the main game. There were some extra lines and some voice acting, but it was mostly the same. And secondly, it’s not technically the end. It’s the end of the DLC, but not the end of the story. That’s in Shantae’s story. I probably would have preferred it to be a little different where Shantae goes off to gather intel on Risky and the rest of the cast talks briefly about what will happen in the near future. But it was kind of cool to see all four of them strike their victory pose at once. It was definitely a triumphant ending worth the effort put into the game.
The other really big problem I had with Pirate Queen’s Quest was the massive shift in tone. Consistency in tone is very important. If you vary your tone wildly, you risk giving your audience mood whiplash, which can be bad. (It can work to a story’s advantage, but it can also hurt it.) And the tone of PQQ was just far too dark for the series. And it’s not that I hate anything dark. I enjoy some stories/games that are darker in tone than PQQ is. Compared to other things, PQQ is not even that dark. The problem is that it is dark compared to the rest of the Shantae series.
And it wasn’t just the story, it was everything. Look at the title screen of Half Genie Hero. It’s colorful, it’s cheerful, and the characters are all very animated. Then look at the title screen for Pirate Queen’s Quest. There’s like 3 colors, it’s dark, it’s sinister, it’s even a completely different art style. I get that we’re playing the villain in it, but there was no need to do such a complete change to the tone. The world map in HGH was colorful and fun. Just look at Shantae’s excited face as you choose a stage. In PQQ, it’s just a dull drab tan with no characters, like it’s just a real map. And then the story itself. It was nearly devoid of the series’ characteristic humor. And the ending… well I went into great detail about that before. The whole thing just wasn’t “Shantae”. (The series, not the character.)
FttE is darker than the rest of the main game. However it’s not that much darker and it there is a good reason why. It takes place during the story’s darkest moment, when Shantae’s magic was turned evil. But even amidst that darkness, the game still maintains its usual charm and is as lighthearted as the rest of the game. The levels have that dark tint from Nega-Shantae’s Corruption, but other than that they are the same as before. The Dream squids are as adorable as the squids in the game usually are. The characters’ personalities just fit. And the determination of the team to save Shantae at the end is fantastic! Also, the point just before the end boss where the characters talk about how much they trusted in each other to pull through, even if they themselves didn’t make it was a wonderfully heartwarming moment after all the fighting they had done.
The overall personality and tone of the whole game is just so much fun. Everything from the characters’ movements and voice lines, to the story, to the title screen and ending, it was just a lighthearted romp from start to finish. Even that moment where Nega-Shantae tried to trick the three into despair by “Getting Rid” of Shantae did nothing to make it less fun. The presentation of the game just kept the feelings high for me.
Like the gameplay, all of that isn’t to say that the story didn’t have its flaws. For example: the before-mentioned Tassel Town scene where Rottytops tricks the others into something embarrassing in between levels. It fit her character, but at the same time, since they all wanted to save Shantae so much, it was a little out of place. And also the scene where the three of them finally stop fighting could have been better developed. At the start of Hypno Baron’s castle they were all still practically at each other’s throats. Then at the end of it (with no intervening scenes) they are all “You’re awesome, no you’re awesome.” It would have been better if there had been some more signs sprinkled across the previous few scenes that showed them starting to warm up to each other. So the pacing there was a little off.
But those are honestly minor complaints. It was a very enjoyable story from start to finish and I hope they do more stuff like it in the future.
In my critique of PQQ I stated that my trust in Wayforward was bruised. Honestly, that’s still true. If they were willing to do that horrible story in PQQ, then they could do it again and so that makes me concerned for what they might do in future games. Friends to the End did some work to help my feelings on the matter, so for now I will remain cautiously optimistic that PQQ was just a one-time thing. I love the Shantae series and I hope it continues to be the light-hearted blast through Sequin Land that it has been in the past.
Here’s hoping for the future. Dance through the Danger, Shantae!
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