One of the more anticipated downloadable games of 2010, Klei’s Shank reminds one of the good ol’ days when side-scrolling beat-‘em-ups were common. Of course, we need a bit more in the way of depth and flash these days, so it wasn’t surprising to see a slick, finely honed visual presentation combined with robust gameplay. Here, you’ll find a combination system you never saw before in side-scrollers and indeed, it even outstrips that of combat mechanics you might find in some 3D action title. The graphics, which are definitely the highlight, represent an artistic tour-de-force most any comic book aficionado will appreciate. All the pieces were in place. By all rights, this could’ve been an elite downloadable title and easily one of the best available this generation. But while still worth playing, Shank stumbles a bit and leaves one feeling just a touch frustrated.
Really, those visuals are something special in the digital game realm. It’s extraordinarily clean and refined, as the animations are always smooth and a pleasure to behold, the cut-scenes are extremely well done, and the overall style is just plain cool. An adult cartoon of the highest order in terms of graphics, the designers spared no effort in delivering a truly impressive-looking game. The backgrounds aren’t necessarily the greatest, as there’s a wee bit of repetition and there isn’t quite as much detail, but that’s only a minor complaint. For the most part, this is one of the leading visual downloadable titles out there, and that alone might make it worth your time and money. Just about everything, from the entertaining and often gut-wrenching special effects, to the fluidity and diversity of the animations, enhances the experience. In fact, it’s one of those rare instances where the visual presentation might make you keep playing even after the gameplay has proven somewhat irritating.
The sound is also quite good, although not spectacular. The voice acting is better than competent, the effects are crisp and satisfying, and the soundtrack does fit the adventure’s gritty attitude. But the latter doesn’t really help to drive the action forward; while playing, I kept hoping for a seriously kickin’ track to pop up and add some hard-hitting panache. Shank could’ve really used a heavy metal boost, in my humble opinion. Furthermore, although the voices are indeed decent, the main character (Shank) sort of fails to convince during certain points in the story, and I almost missed the presence of cheesy one-liners during gameplay. I think they would’ve actually matched up nicely with the style. But beyond that, the quality of the sound, based on sharp effects that provide the player with a general boost, is relatively high. In short, the technical aspects of this game are worthy of acclaim.
As mentioned, Shank is a side-scrolling slasher that combines the depth of current combat systems and the nostalgia of yesteryear. You will work your way through hordes of enemies – the variety of which are reminiscent of Streets of Rage - and even use some platforming techniques to reach your ultimate goal. See, this guy called “The Butcher” has disrespected you in the worst way (he beat the snot out of you and stole your woman) and now, you’re willing to maim and destroy anybody who gets in your way. It’s the clichéd ‘80s video game premise with a twist or two tossed in for good measure, and all that top-notch artistry and sound. Within the first hour of play, you’ll have procured the likes of grenades and a shotgun, and will have already grappled, swung, and slid your way through a series of nicely created levels. Things only get more and more crazy from there…but maybe that’s where the game lets us down.
The basics appear to be simple on the surface- light attack (knives) is Square, your ranged attack (gun) is Circle, a heavy attack (chainsaw) is Triangle, you jump with X, grapple (for both platforming and grabbing foes) with R1, toss grenades with L2, and use the directional pad to switch between available inventory weapons. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well, once you get to playing, you’ll start to realize there very well may be hundreds of combination possibilities when you factor in the light, heavy and ranged attacks. Furthermore, you can even chain moves up using the grapple or different directions; i.e., using the R1 button to grab an enemy and then pressing L2 to feed him a grenade. …nice. Experimentation is half the fun and although it can feel a little overwhelming with lots of baddies on the screen, the potential for unbelievable combo awesomeness is evident.
This all being said, you may have noticed I used the words “frustrated” and “irritating,” and there’s a reason: sometimes, you just feel as if the game is too darn cheap. For instance, while the platforming elements are little more than mildly pleasant diversions at the start, once you get about three-quarters of the way through, the platforming aspect becomes hair-pulling annoying. And it’s not annoying because it’s just plain challenging; it’s annoying because it feels cheap. Same goes for some parts of the combat. For instance, big guys that rush onto the screen are impossible to see and avoid so if you’re in the way, you’ll invariably take damage. On top of which, you often have to wait a second or two for Shank to get through a particular animation and later on, such delays can prove deadly. Now, this latter drawback won’t be unfamiliar to veteran gamers who likely remember the “cheapness” of old-fashioned side-scrollers. Heck, such people might even enjoy such a trait as it really makes the game feel…well, retro.
This is why I’m not going to be quite as harsh as other critics when it comes to the difficulty. Considering the targeted audience and the goal of the development team, I think such “flaws” might actually add to the flavor. However, if you’re not of that hardcore crowd that dealt with such eccentricities during the golden age of gaming, I would say the overall score drops to a mid-7. The length is good for the price and the entire package is definitely worthy of the $14.99 price tag, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll find it endlessly entertaining. It starts out that way but it doesn’t remain that way. The bosses are usually pretty sweet, the story is kinda bad-ass in its simple, exuberantly violent way, the technicals are definitely some of the best in the downloadable realm, and the action never wavers are falters. That might be all you need to know. But in the end, Shank’s idiosyncrasies really start to mount up, and they hit an irksome peak once you near the end.
The multiplayer is also a little blasé, as the screen often downshifts into chaos; it’s often difficult to see everything that’s happening at once, and I noticed some hitches in that wonderful animation. Co-op is undeniably fun, though. I enthusiastically recommend the game provided one takes the following caveat into account: it’s gonna piss you off. You might bust a controller. If you’re good with that, and you still want to partake of the aforementioned pluses, be my guest.
8/30/2010 Ben Dutka