Also available on: PC (late 2010)
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher:: Electronic Arts
Genre: Side-scrolling brawler
For most people, a shank will either be synonymous with a lump of meat or a rather vicious and crudely put-together prison blade. Side-scrolling beat-em-up Shank somewhat blends both uses, as machetes and swords are crammed into people's flesh with pantomime spurts of gory blood. Developed by Klei Entertainment and published by Electronic Arts, the download game packs a fast-paced single and co-operative campaign in a derivative tale of bloody revenge, all presented in a polished and distinctive art style. A few design flaws dampen the experience and the button-mashing combat becomes rather repetitive after a while, but Shank still offers some side-scrolling, machete-slashing and gun-blasting fun on consoles and PC.
Borrowing heavily from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill series and other revenge fantasies, Shank's story features the hulking Shank settling his scores with a gang of theatrical characters who have wronged him. In reality, the story falls rather flat and is occasionally confusing, as enemies are never really coherently identified or pre-faced as to why they are there. While the story is certainly passable at best, the art style is really strong. The cartoon graphics mixed with Japanese-style scroll drawing proves a visual treat in the cutscenes and the levels. The score is great and the voice acting is okay, though the game's overall tone feels a bit weak. The script aims for Adult Swim-style dark humour, but lacks the sense of flair and panache to really make it work.
The main campaign, which takes around two to three hours to bash through, predominantly involves 2D side-scrolling levels where the player uses blades, a chainsaw, grenades and an arsenal of guns to dispatch a horde of well-armed goons. Slashing away at enemies is great fun and there are options to mix up the gun, blade and melee attacks to create combos, such as flying leaps before hammering some unfortunate soul. The enemies are pretty docile at first, but the game mixes them up sufficiently to provide a decent level of challenge. The game also regularly rewards the player with new items to give incentives to keep playing. Each level ends with a boss battle against a range of fearsome foes, including a hulking S&M beast, a rocket-firing vehicle and a meat-grabbing butcher. The boss battles offer the game's real highlights, but some players may be less than challenged by their difficultly level, even on hard setting.
On the surface, the blades-guns-melee gameplay in Shank appears to offer the tactical options of a refined combat system. However, the game essentially just boils down to frantically mashing buttons without a great deal of skill. For example, a boss battle against a katana-wielding maiden proved much easier by simply jumping around manically and slamming the melee attack button rather than trying to tactically expose the enemy's weaknesses. The lack of additional dimensions to the combat makes the game rather repetitive after a while, despite the smattering of platform sections. Considering that the single-player campaign is fairly brief, it's pretty sad that it's also boring at times.
There are other frustrations, particularly with control system. Occasionally, button presses do not register quickly enough, which can be a real hindrance in the fast-paced combat. There are moments when the controls are simply not as responsive as they should be, especially when blocking against fast-moving bosses. The problems are never so plentiful as to totally derail Shank, but they don't enhance the experience either. There are other times when the amount of enemies on screen means that the player is battered over and over again without getting the chance to react, which is intensely irritating.
Alongside the single-player campaign, Shank also offers the chance to team up with a buddy to tackle a co-operative prequel campaign. The game, which only supports local co-op and not online play, has one player becoming Shank and the other being his partner-in-crime Falcone. The gameplay is exactly the same as the single-player campaign, but playing with a buddy makes it much more fun. Bashing through the combat sequences as a duo is excellent and there are options for teaming attacks for some brutal finishing moves. However, it's really disappointing that the co-op segments are so brief and it would surely have been better to make the whole campaign available for co-op. If Lara Croft And the Guardian Of Light can do full campaign co-op support, then there is no reason why Shank can't too.
Overall, Shank has a lot of positives, but the game ultimately falls a fair way short of perfection. The art style is really strong and the side-scrolling action is superficially great fun to bash through. However, the lack of depth in the gameplay really starts to make the game feel repetitive after a while, as buttons are mashed with no thought of tactics or skill. Other frustrations rest in the slightly skewiff control system and the weak narrative. The problems are eased in the option for co-op play, but it's a crying shame that you can't play through the full campaign with a friend. Ultimately, Shank is an enjoyable side-scrolling action game that just manages to shank itself in the foot.
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