A Double-Edged Shank
When Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films were released in the earlier half of this decade, I couldn’t help but wonder why no one was trying to make a video game based on them. Don’t get me wrong, the films were excellent and we all know how video games based on movies typically turn out, however, they just seemed so perfectly suited to a video game formula.
Take a wronged character bent on revenge, throw in a series of mid-boss type enemies to topple en route to a final showdown against your real adversary, and sprinkle liberally with over-the-top action, violence, and gore. Sounds like a winning formula to me. It also sounds incredibly similar to the newest downloadable title out of EA and Klei Entertainment, Shank.
This game puts you in the shoes of Shank, a man who has been betrayed and left for dead by some evil folks. After recovering, Shank makes it his mission to force all those who wronged him to pay for their misdeeds. However, Shank isn’t exactly a hero, as he is just as much of a killer as those he pursues. In fact, he actually worked for and with them before they decided to try to kill him. As an anti-hero killer, the only way for you to rebalance the scales is to kill your way through thousands of goons, take out those who betrayed you, and finish off the man who gave the order.
The first thing you’ll notice about Shank is just how visually striking the game is. If you are familiar with the Samurai Jack cartoon, you’ll know exactly what to expect from Shank’s look. Whether you are playing the game or watching the game’s animated cutscenes, you’ll swear that Shank looks more like a stylized cartoon than a video game. However, this isn’t a bad thing, as the hand-drawn characters and environments come to life before your eyes thanks to a high level of detail and great animation, making every blood soaked minute of the game visually appealing.
Unfortunately, Shank’s gameplay is rarely as unique and interesting as its visuals. At its core, Shank is a simplistic 2D brawler that has you walking left to right, annihilating countless foes, and completing some platforming in order to proceed. The basics of the combat include a melee attack, a heavy attack, and a firearm attack. With each of these attacks being mapped to their own button, it is possible to string these attacks together in a variety of different ways. However, the order in which you perform these attacks rarely matters, barring the need to fire your gun at advancing enemies to keep them from blindsiding you. In fact, it is quite possible to mash your way through the majority of this game’s fights.
The only time you’ll need to consider a fighting strategy during combat is when facing off against one of the game’s bosses. Actually, strategy is perhaps not the best way of putting it, as these brawls simply involve watching what the boss does and waiting to find its glaring weakness. For example, at one point, you’ll face off against a foe named The Butcher. Sticking with his shtick, he is surrounded by hanging meat and attacks by hurling a chained meat hook at you. In order to defeat this foe, you’ll need to use your guns to shoot the hanging meat. This lowers the massive hunks of protein, leading to The Butcher getting his meat hooks stuck in them and opening the window for Shank to perform a special attack. Then, all you need to do is keep repeating this cycle until The Butcher’s life bar is empty. Every boss fight in Shank plays out similarly, with only the weaknesses and method of exploiting them changing.
Sadly, this kind of mindless repetition is what makes up the majority of the experience in Shank. Whether you are wiping out hundreds of nameless goons or finding another more formidable enemy’s glaring weakness, be prepared to perform the same few attacks countless times. However, the game does attempt to spice combat up a bit by giving you access to new weapons throughout the course of the single-player campaign. You’ll receive a couple new guns and a few new heavy melee weapons to use, although, they don’t do much to change the actual gameplay. Sure, the shotgun is better at close range and has more stopping power than the pistols you start with, but both weapons are essentially interchangeable. The same goes for the unlockable machetes and blades that replace your chainsaw. The animations may be different, but they are still basically the same.
Making matters worse are the game’s inconsistencies that serve to aggravate you, cause you to take unnecessary damage, or even lead to your immediate death. First off, Shank seems completely incapable of aiming a gun directly above his head. Later in the game, levels will have enemies positioned on platforms above your head that you’re unable to reach, with gunfire being the only solution to this problem.
Rather than standing beneath the foe and shooting straight up, you’ll have to run across the screen and shoot diagonally in order to take them out. Another major headache comes for some of the game’s platforming. The jumping in Shank isn’t forgiving, often failing you if you are anything more than just a bit off with your timing or positioning. This is further upsetting later in the game when you’ll be required to face a plethora of platforming challenges that have small windows of opportunity and even smaller margins for error.
Still, the worst offender in Shank is the wonky dodge maneuver. The game will often require you to dodge in order to take out specific enemies or even just to avoid taking otherwise inescapable damage. However, the problem with this is you’ll never know if it is actually going to work correctly. One time, you may successfully sidestep an incoming attack, the next, you may get plowed into as though you weren’t aware of it. I’m not sure if it is a problem of distance, timing, technique, or a combination of these elements, all I know is I have attempted to dodge the same attacks the same way multiple times and the results are hit-and-miss. In fact, it frequently felt like the game just didn’t want me to succeed, given that I had already successfully performed these dodges several times in the exact same situations before.
These issues aside, Shank is also a short title. The game has two different campaigns, a single-player and a co-op, but both experiences are over far too quickly. The single-player campaign tells the story of Shank’s revenge and only takes about three hours to beat. On the other hand, the co-op campaign delivers the backstory of why Shank is seeking payback and is even shorter than the single-player adventure. While this is an interesting idea, playing both back to back (single-player first since that is the mode in which you can unlock the additional weapons) will probably take you less than five hours. Of course, if you grow as tired of the repetition and inconsistencies as I did, this shorter length may just be for the best.
While Shank has a great visual style, an interesting story to tell, and plenty of over-the-top violence, the gameplay is extremely repetitive, has some aggravating issues, and is over far too soon. Shank’s experience isn’t completely without merit, as hacking and blasting your way through hordes of nameless goons can be fun, but it gets stale rather quickly. If you’re looking for a mindless beat ‘em up, you could definitely do worse than Shank. However, if you’re looking for a lengthy and varied brawler, you will want to look elsewhere.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.3 Graphics
Shank’s visual style is enjoyable and reminiscent of the Samurai Jack cartoon. 3.0 Control
While not completely broken, you’ll frequently find yourself wondering why you can’t aim straight up, make certain jumps, or dodge attacks consistently. 3.6 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is fitting and the quality of the voice work is good. 2.9 Play Value
While Shank can be fun, it is also repetitive, inconsistent, and over far too quickly. 3.2 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.