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Review: Shank

7:00 PM on 08.24.2010 // Nick Chester

Inspired by graphic novels and the pulp ultra-violence of film directors like Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino, Shank is a classic saga of revenge, loyalty, betrayal, and love. But mostly revenge ... with a chainsaw.

It’s a game where the protagonist isn’t necessarily the good guy, but more the least bad of the bad guys, in a seedy world where folks start days with a bar fight and wind down with an evening lap dance. Shank is violent, brutal, and completely over-the-fucking-top ... and that’s exactly the way I like it.

Shank’s influences don’t stop with nods to other media. Its look and feel is familiar to anyone who’s read a Golden Age comic, and it seems to share the same world as Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (minus the vampires, Salma Hayek and a snake). Yet, at its heart, Shank is an old-school brawler, with classic 2D mechanics that go deeper than you’d guess at first blush, and it sometimes reaches a ball-busting retro difficulty that will please gamers desperate for a challenge.

Shank (Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network)
Developer: Klei
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release date: August 24, 2010 (PlayStation Network), August 25 (Xbox Live Arcade)
Price: $14.99/1200 MS Points

Combat in Shank should be immediately familiar. You’ve got your light attack, that will allow you deliver quick blows using the titular hero’s eponymous shank blades. You can also mix in a heavy attack, with Shank carrying a massive chainsaw to start. Shank also has a pounce maneuver, which has him flying through the air to land on and pin smaller enemies. From here, you can unleash a handful of attacks while keeping the baddies immobilized. Mix some guns into the works and a full-range of grapple attacks, and you have what appears to be your basic brawler.

But Shank, as you’ll find, is much more than that. Yes, you can make your way through many encounters by stringing together random combos with button mashes, occasionally using an evade maneuver to catch your breath. I won’t lie -- that’s how I played most of the game to start, and it’s damned fun. As you progress, you’ll pick up a variety of new melee weapons and guns, from a katana blade (disembowel an enemy with a grapple attack!) to a high-powered shotgun. Each weapon has it’s own unique animation and effect, letting your tear through enemies while unleashing fountains of crimson. The gorgeous hand-drawn, smoothly animated kills are a joy to watch, and depending on where you fall on the sadism scale, they won’t get old fast.

But this button-mashing, and just sitting back and relaxing while you enjoy the slaughter, won’t last long. The fact is, Klei’s not having any of that button-mashing stuff -- the beginning of the game is just a warm up, and you’ll soon find that there’s more combat strategy here than first meets the eye. By the game’s midpoint you’ll have learned that switching up weapons is essential for success, especially in large scale encounters where multiple enemy types pile onto the screen.

The key, you’ll see, is using all of the tools in your arsenal to help keep enemies at bay. Perhaps you’ll want to pounce on a smaller enemy with a gun, pinning him to the ground while using the shotgun to blow back the rest of the group, giving you time to dig your shanks into the poor pinned suckers throat. That’s just one example, and it won’t always work, depending on the crew of thugs (and vicious dogs) intent on ending your life. The key with Shank is experimentation, strategy, fast fingers, and on-your-feet planning. It didn’t click for me right away -- I knew I was doing something wrong when I found myself getting needlessly slaughtered -- but once it does, Shank becomes more satisfying than your typical brawler.

As Shank butchers his way through the criminal underground, you’ll face off against various look-a-like goons as is typical of the genre. But what’s not typical of the genre is, say, having to fight a massive S&M freak (complete with ball gag) and his slaves. These types of confrontations are what you’d expect from a game like Shank, and Klei delivers, with unique encounters and varying attack patterns.

While this brawling is the star, Shank also throws some light platforming into the work to mix things up. You’ll scale walls, swing on skulls, run across billboards, and hop small platforms. This platforming, really, only seems like a means to an end. That end being, of course, getting to more dudes to slash up and riddle with bullet holes. This hopping and climbing does tend to get a bit repetitive; one could swear someone somewhere was just copying and pasting platforming sections.

Shank also features a cooperative mode, where the titular bad ass teams up with his buddy Falcone in what plays out like a prequel to the game’s single-player story. Combat and gameplay here is consistent with solo play, save for cooperative double team moves and attacks, and the ability to revive a fallen player. This mode features a completely fresh set of levels bosses, many of which are specifically designed for two-players; the mode even features new cut-scenes and voice acting.

The cooperative mode is a great addition to Shank, adding a number of hours to the title, provided you have a friend sitting next to you -- this is couch co-op only. That’s probably for the best, though. Playing Shank alone, with its hectic brawling gameplay and dozens of on-screen enemies at once, can get confusing enough. Add in a second player, and it’s even more difficult to keep track of the action.

Imagine if you will, the exaggerated cartoon alley cat scuffles, where the two animals tangle and all you see is a mess of fur, smoke, and grawlixes. That’s what Shank cooperative gameplay can be like; it’s so easy to lose track of who’s doing what to who and where. That’s not to say it’s impossible to keep up, but perhaps an on-screen indicator (or brighter hero colors to make them stand out) might have helped solve this problem.

You don’t need a reviewer to tell you this, but here I go -- Shank is beautiful. Klei’s creative director, Jeffrey Agala, has a background in cartoon animation and illustration, and it shows. From the cut-scenes to the in-game action, Shank holds its own artistically with some of the best in adult-oriented animation. Sure, it cribs plenty of ideas from other sources, but it’s unlikely you’ve seen anything quite like this in a game before.

To complete the solo campaign, I spent a little over five hours, with levels taking me anywhere from three minutes to an hour to complete. Keep in mind, a lot of that time was spent dying -- I’m embarrassed to say I spent 45 minutes on fighting the game’s final boss -- so your mileage may vary. Tack on the cooperative mode, and you’ll likely add another few hours of Shank playtime right there. And if you’re a collector, completing certain tasks with let you unlock key artwork as well as additional costumes or skins for Shank.

Klei has also included a “Hard” mode, which seems completely insurmountable -- the enemies are more difficult and there are no in-game check points. I can’t imagine anyone will be completing that mode day-one. I expect to be told I suck at videogames, and proven wrong with a YouTube video less than 24-hours after this review goes live.

Shank is yet another in a long line of quality digital download titles, a violent and cathartic end to summer. Its sometimes aggravating difficulty might not be for everyone, but anyone looking to bring back that warm, pit of your stomach feeling of playing Double Dragon for the first time needn’t look any further.

Score8.5 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)

Nick Chester, Former Editor-in-Chief (2011)
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