Giant Bomb Review

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Shank Review

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Few games share Shank's violent enthusiasm, even if it can't carry the whole experience.

 Oh man. That guy is BONED.
 Oh man. That guy is BONED.
It seems like developers have been trying to modernize side-scrolling beat-'em-ups since that first quarter was dropped into a Double Dragon machine, and Klei Entertainment's Shank is just the most recent to give it a go. That's not to say that its affection for, and attempt to refine, the old-school stylings of the genre are the only things Shank has going for it. Really, Shank's greatest function is as a showcase for an angular and brutal art style which conspires with a fluid and also-brutal animation system to provide the game with a really sublimely violent and high-impact first impression. Shank teems with satisfying gameplay moments, and it's a sadistic pleasure to look at, but it's still haunted by the genre's two-headed specter of repetition and brevity.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Shank for me was just how much time the game spends on its story, even if it's all in service of the game's film-scratched vibe. The basic beats of the story aren't much more complex than the typical kidnapped-girlfriend conceit, but this two-fisted tale of revenge is clearly influenced by the gritty Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez style of grindhouse storytelling. Between-level flashbacks and slick picture-in-picture sequences that play out in real-time shed light on the events as they unfold, making the anti-heroic Shank's seemingly unquenchable thirst for retribution that much more understandable. 

 This back-rub has gone horribly awry!
 This back-rub has gone horribly awry!
It's unclear whether Shank is the character's given name or a nickname, but either way, it is earned. Shank is a bad, bad dude, and you yourself will feel like a complete bad-ass juggling knots of thuggish meathead enemies with your vicious arsenal of blades, guns, and chains. After an early every-bone-broken cutscene where Shank swiftly acquires his starting set of shanks, twin handguns, and a motherfucking chainsaw, you're loosed on the world, ready to make blood salad out of anyone that gets in your way. You'll find additional weapons like a shotgun, machetes, an uzi, and a katana that you can swap your starting weapons with on the fly. 

With three weapons at the ready at any given time, Shank has a lot of options with which to murder his opponents, and the gameplay is balanced in a way that strong-arms the player into making full use of Shank's deadly craft. Most enemies are complete pushovers in a one-on-one confrontation, but Shank is all about crowd control, requiring you to alternate between your three equipped attacks almost constantly to keep your head above the rising tide of mayhem. Some streamlined and stylish platforming action breaks up the kill-crazy rampages, though the fight is where Shank finds most of its challenge. It can be difficult, but rarely frustrating, though there are exceptions. 

 Shank (character) with shank (object) in Shank (game).
 Shank (character) with shank (object) in Shank (game).
It's generally not a huge issue, but certain boss fights, which can require somewhat specific timing, can reveal the way Shank gives priority to its awesome-looking animation over the responsiveness of the controls. There are also some specific sequences where out-of-reach enemies force you to rely on your guns, which feel more like medium-range melee weapons than they do traditional firearms. Since you can only shoot up at an angle, it requires some fussy positioning.

I totally get why Shank feels compelled to linger on its visuals--this is a consistently great-looking game with style and energy to spare--but the real issue is that, even with its myriad of graphic ways to make a man into Manwich, the action in Shank can become a bit of a grind, despite a runtime that clocks in at around three hours. Even from the start, the enemies you face can soak up an alarming amount of damage, though once you acclimate to the rhythms of the action and understand how to approach different enemies, their long life bars start to feel like filler. There's also a unique co-op campaign, but it's limited to local play, and honestly, by the time I finished the solo game, my desire to play any more Shank had been pretty well quenched.

Downloadable games are evolving at an unbelievable clip right now, and one of the associated growing pains is an issue of perceived value, of quality versus quantity. There are some incredible peaks in Shank that I think are entirely worth experiencing, and it can be a pleasure to play, at least for a while. There are far worse ways to spend $15 for three hours, but it's those very highs that really make Shank's shortcomings that much more disappointing.