Bloody, Tarantino-inspired violence is the name of the game in Klei Entertainment’s Shank, a 2D side-scrolling beat-em-up featuring cartoon animation as opposed to animated sprites or 2.5D graphics. Developed by Jamie Cheng and Jeff Agala (the latter of whom served as director on the Canadian animated series Atomic Betty) the game has roots in animation. And let me tell you, it shows. Being allowed to preview Shank at last year’s Penny Arcade Expo, I have been highly anticipating Shank. And, thankfully, it didn’t disappoint.
Shank‘s story is your average revenge fare, portrayed through Samurai Jack-inspired animated cutscenes that appear between levels and at the beginning and end of boss encounters. The plot, penned by God of War co-creator Marianne Krawczyk, shares a few similarities to that of Kill Bill; a member of a crime syndicate, the eponymous Shank, is betrayed and left for dead, only to return years later to exact revenge against the people that wronged him. However, the story mostly just serves to get you from point A to point B and can possibly be considered one of the weakest parts of the game. That said, the story isn’t mundane at all; it’s just not the game’s strongest suit. The real meat of the game — as it should be — lies within the gameplay.
At its most basic, Shank is a 2D side-scrolling beat-em up in which you must defeat every enemy in your path before you can proceed to the next part of the stage. However, the core of Shank‘s gameplay system is its combo and weapon systems, both of which allow you to take your enemies down in a variety of ways. There are three types of attacks: your knife, which is your standard melee attack; your guns, which include pistols, a shotgun, and an uzi; and heavy attack weapons, which include a chainsaw, twin machetes, chains, and a katana. In addition to your standard weapons, you also have a limited supply of grenades, beginning with three by default and being able to hold a maximum of five.
Thus, the combat is rather varied. In addition to just standard attacks, you also have the ability to grapple with and pounce on enemies. By grappling, you can toss your enemy around, stab or shoot him at close range, and even make him eat a grenade (one of my personal favorite moves). By pouncing, you can pin down an enemy and beat him to death or keep him pinned while you shoot at the enemies surrounding you. Ammo is unlimited, with the exception of grenades; though don’t expect the game to be easy. While chaining together combos using the three different weapon-types is a smooth process, your enemies won’t just stand for that. Even on Normal difficulty, the enemy AI is no joke, especially when it comes to the bosses. They can be rather annoying to fight and defeat. Most of them require a combination of tactics and pattern recognition, trying to figure out how to attack based on the frequency and pattern of their attacks. Once you figure out their patterns, however, defeating them isn’t too difficult.
In addition to the single-player campaign, the game comes with a separate multiplayer campaign, which serves as the prequel to the story. Though only supporting offline co-op, the multiplayer mode allows you to team up with a friend as Shank and his partner-in-crime, Falcone, encountering the events that lead to the main, single-player story mode. The gameplay is mostly the same, though you also get the ability to use a tag-team grapple move. There are also unlockable skins, concept art, and a challenging hard mode, which disables in-level checkpoints. For you perfectionists out there, there’s definitely quite a bit to unlock.
As stated before, the game employs Samurai Jack-style animation, both in its cutscenes and gameplay. The animation is rather smooth, never feeling clunky or stiff, though the backgrounds can be a bit uninteresting at times. In contrast, the characters tend to be rather striking and brightly colored, especially when it comes to their blood. Overall, even during gameplay, the visual style makes it seem more like you’re watching a cartoon, which is rather nice to see.
The music for Shank is just a treat to hear, even behind the sounds of gunshots and people dying that fills most of the game from beginning to end. Composed by Jason Garner and Vince de Vera, the game’s soundtrack seems, at times, like something you would expect to hear in Robert Rodriguez’s Mexico trilogy, which really fits the feel of the game in a way. As an added bonus, the soundtrack is free to download from the Shank website.
In terms of voice acting, however, the game shows one other of its weak points. Though mostly passable, there are some rather bad moments when the acting sounds extremely forced. Still given that the story isn’t the overall focus of the game, those moments aren’t often.
Though a bit on the short side with its four-hour campaign (six hours with the co-op campaign), Shank is a game that definitely delivers to fans of 2D side-scrolling brawlers. While the story is engaging and entertaining, if you are looking for a rich, complex narrative, you probably won’t find it here. What you will find is one slick-looking and bloody game that’s a great deal of fun. If you like gratuitous, over-the-top violence, as well as cartoons and 2D beat-em ups, Shank is definitely the game for you. And at $15 (1200 Microsoft Points), why wouldn’t you want it?
This game was reviewed using a copy of Shank on the PlayStation 3. Download code provided by Klei Entertainment.