Review: Shank (Sony PS3)

Shank
Publisher: EA
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Genre: Beat’em Up
Release Date: 08/24/2010

I miss the NES. Games were often simpler than they are now, but they were also (usually) more polished and pure. The last few hardware generations have seen games getting longer, easier, and less elegant. Even games I like, such as Red Dead Redemption, are too reliant on mini games and online multiplayer. Truth is, I enjoy doing things besides play the same video game for three months straight. The one shining light for me this generation has been the introduction of smaller, download only games on the PSN. The best of these modern classics is Shank.

Calling Shank a grindhouse reimagining of Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja is a pretty succinct way to sum it up. Like Bad Dudes, it is a violent, side-scrolling, beat’em up. The gun play in Shank is highly reminiscent of the Metal Slug series, which is a very good thing. Even better is the grappling and hand to hand fighting, which reminds me of Double Dragon in the best possible way. Honestly, I could list a couple dozen games that Shank reminds me of, from Splatterhouse to Sengoku.

This combination of game play styles could have fallen apart in lesser hands, but Klei have pulled off a miracle in Shank. The knife, chainsaw, katana, machete, chain, duel pistols, shotgun, Uzi, and hand grenade combat meshes together as well as possible. The grapple button works exactly as it should, letting Shank grab an opponent and get in a few free licks with any weapon. Most rewarding of all is jamming a hand grenade in an opponent’s mouth, hitting them with an uppercut, and watching as they explode, taking a few fellow henchmen out with them. The pounce move makes Shank leap across the about a third of the screen and onto a like sized enemy. With the bad guy pinned, Shank can get in a few blows with his knife or the equipped heavy weapon. Pounce is also useful for crowd control, as Shank can shoot his gun at a standing opponent while pinning someone down.

The enemy mix is pretty limited, boiling down to a couple of different henchmen Shank’s size, dogs, rats, and giant sized thugs. The like-sized enemies are the most fun to fight, since Shank’s offense is the most varied against them. Being able to bring the full brunt of Shank’s bloody vengeance upon the heads of a group of henchmen is a definite high point. Dogs are annoying, since they can do mucho damage, are fairly speedy, and can pin Shank to the ground and bite him. The giant thugs are initially kind of irritating. They cannot be pounced, can take a massive amount of damage, and have powerful offensive moves. Once it becomes clear that they can be grappled and given a mouthful of grenade, the fear factor subsides a bit.

One enemy in particular seems to anger a large number of players: the perched gunman. Throughout the later stages, machine gun wielding thugs take to higher ground in order to put Shank down. This can be frustrating, since they almost always strike at the same time as a wave of foot soldiers and diagonal shooting can be a real chore. Shooting up and diagonally is an annoyance and the weakest part of the control scheme. It never quite feels right, no matter how often you do it. Even worse, the Uzi has a tendency to go nuts and spray in an arc instead of where you want it to. This is definitely a minor issue for me. I have fond memories of games with even cheaper deaths than Shank ever dreamt of dishing out. An AK-47 from a balcony has nothing on the horrors of Splatterhouse or Contra when it comes to killing off the player.

The boss fights in Shank are pretty much awesome. The bosses, ranging from a huge luchadore to a Jeep to a foxy female sword fighter, are all a proper mix of fun and frustrating. The patterns strike a nice balance, being less than obvious without being obscure to the point of ridiculousness. No boss had me running to the Internet in search of a clue, but they all had me biting my tongue in anger. The first game in this genre I can remember playing all the way through without running into a cheap boss.

Throughout the wide variety of stages, Shank does have a fair bit of platforming. Luckily, the controls are tight enough, and the stages forgiving enough, to make wall running and pole climbing enjoyable. Some stages, like the church, feel like a run through the Ninja Warrior course. The compartmentalization of the platforming and combat does feel a little off, but the platforming sections are a nice diversion from strangling people with chains.

For once, the grindhouse setting does not feel forced. House of the Dead: Overkill and Wet both tread the 42nd Street path, but came across as forced and put on. Maybe it is because Shank uses an animated style, which reminds me of Samurai Jack and the Venture Brothers, but the ultra-violence and hard-boiled dialogue never hits the same sour note the previously mentioned titles did. By keeping the Kill Bill-esque plot simple, the flashback festooned storytelling method works pretty well. A twist towards the end goes a long way towards explaining, if not justifying, Shank’s bloody progress.

The in game graphics are simply gorgeous. I have never seen a game so beautifully animated. If not for the gore, I would say Shank‘s graphics remind me more of Aladdin for the Super NES than any game from this generation. The way Shank, the common foes, and the bosses move and interact with each other is a thing of beauty. The nicely rendered cut scenes are equally eye-pleasing and make it very easy to watch the plot unfurl.

That being said, the backgrounds do not always look as good as the characters do. Some stages look very good, even great, but the church looks positively 16-bit. Another minor issue is the way Shank’s hands never really look like he is grabbing the poles he is climbing hand over hand. This small amount of floatiness is jarring in comparison to the rest of the game and really looks sloppy. Another issue is that, when fighting a group of like sized enemies, Shank can disappear. In a game as lethal as Shank can be, especially on hard, losing track of where you are can be a deal breaker. In co-op mode, this issue is exacerbated since there are two similar characters on screen that can vanish into the crowd.

Musically, Shank scores pretty well with its… score. While nothing on the soundtrack is really hummable, or especially memorable, it is perfectly adequate for the job at hand. The guitar riffs are evocative of Spaghetti Westerns and exploitation movies, the sweet spot for a grindhouse oriented game such as this, without veering into cheesy mariachi territory. I downloaded it from the Klei website and plan on keeping it, so it must have made some kind of positive impression on me.

As nicely executed as the cut scenes are, the voice acting in them is sadly mediocre. I will not go so far as to say it was terrible, as others have. It just sounded kind of flat. Maybe it is the fault of my home entertainment system, but I do know that other games have sounded much better through my system. The vocal mix has a dull sound to it, which makes me wonder if there was an issue in production instead of the performances themselves. Either way, the voice acting lets the cut scenes down a bit.

Shank is a relatively short game, if you simply want to play it through one time on normal difficulty and call it a day. For those who want to really taste all it has to offer, though, there is a hard difficulty that lives up to its name. On top of the excellent single player campaign, there is an equally long two player co-op mode. This mode acts as a prequel to the single player experience, giving a back story to much of the single player journey’s plot. The co-op is local only, so those without friends need not apply, but for those who do have a second player, it is a treat.

Another way replay is encouraged is through the unlocking of concept art and costumes. I have yet to meet the person who slogs through games for concept art, but the unlockable costumes are super cool. Ranging from an afro sporting butt kicker to a robot to a mouse mask wearing gimp, the costumes are creative and add a little more fun to fun game. DeathSpank makes an appearance, as does a familiar yellow and black jumpsuit and Spartan warrior. My favorite has to be the hockey mask, which evokes Splatterhouse much more than they upcoming remake does.

The Scores
Story/Modes: Great
Graphics: Great
Audio: Very Good
Gameplay: Very Good
Replayability: Very Good
Balance: Good
Originality: Very Good
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Classic
Miscellaneous: Very Good

Final Score: GREAT GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary

At $15, Shank is a shotgun blast of entertainment. It is not a long trip, but it is fun while it lasts. More importantly, like the films and games that inform Shank‘s world, this is a trip I want to take over and over. Shank is as polished, elegant, and downright fun as a throwback game has ever been and is the new standard for beat’em ups.