When I last checked in with Vancouver-based Klei Entertainment, they were feeding PC and Xbox Live Arcade users a delicious puzzler named Eets. Seeing how much I loved that adorable mind-bender, I was excited to see what was next for this independent upstart. After playing Shank I was shocked at not only how exciting the whole experience was, but also how gruesome it is. They traded in cute graphics for blood and guts comic book fun. Sounds like a good trade to me.
Shank is the PSN's newest 2D brawler, sort of a cross between God of War, Comix Zone and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill series. It's an over-the-top action game where players slice and dice their way through hundreds of nameless goons and take revenge on the jerks that kidnapped (or worse?) Shank's lovely wife. Along the way he'll pick up new weapons and get to the bottom of this twisted conspiracy.
The game has a very specific 2D style that draws influence from all kinds of classic 8- and 16-bit brawlers from the past. The art is straight out of the comic books, offering hand-drawn animation that is dripping with tiny details (and gallons of blood). Although the action is pulling from classic games, the gameplay feels a lot like Sony's God of War franchise. Shank has two melee buttons, a regular attack using his iconic knives and a more powerful attack with one of the many alternate weapons -- sword, chainsaw, etc. He also packs a gun, which allows our hero to deal with enemies on the other side of the screen.
Like God of War, the combat is pulled together by an exciting combo system. Because he has three weapons at his disposal at the touch of a button, Shank can easily string together attacks and keep his combo meter high. Shank has a surprising amount of moves and weapons, keeping the action fresh as he kills everybody on the screen. It may not be some big-budget 3D action experience, but Shank definitely gets the chaos of the combat right.
The familiar (yet not derivative) gameplay shows up again every time player face one of the game's boss characters. Because these baddies are so big and strong, Shank will need to use the environment against them and wait for the right moment to chop off an arm or impale them with a sword. These bosses are massive undertakings, usually ending with Shank dying a few times before he sees the villain's weak spot.
I hate to spend the whole episode comparing Klei's newest game to God of War, but I do it for good reason. Shank's story is written by Marianne Krawczyk, the co-creator of Sony's Greek epic. The similarities are blatant, from the character's tortured back story to the way you ultimately take down bosses. But it's more than just a God of War knock-off; it also manages to play homage to a number of other movies and games. There are elements that are lifted wholesale from Kill Bill, especially in the way the story plays out towards the end.
Even with all this talk about God of War and Kill Bill, I'm happy to say that Shank has a style all its own. There is definitely a lot of nods that hip gamers will no doubt recognize, but they only add to what is already an action-packed game. On the other hand, I do wish the story was a little more fleshed out. The set-up is purely revenge porn, which is perfectly fine. However, the story never gets much deeper than that, which is a shame. Still, it's done with enough style to warrant the three or four hours it will take to make your way through all twenty levels.
Shank does offer a few incentives to get you to go through the game more than once. There's a fun co-op multiplayer option that adds a new layer to the quest. Plus, there are unlockables you can earn by beating the game on different difficulties. And because the game looks so good, I found that friends were riveted while I played the game in front of them. That's not something I can say about most arcade-style 2D action games.
Sadly, there are a few things that keep Shank from being an instant must-buy. Even with all of the moves and weapons, the basic combat is incredibly repetitive. This isn't bad if you play the game a few levels at a time, but trying to go through it in one sitting becomes a real test of your tolerance for repetition. Speaking of the intollerable, the game sports some of the worst voice acting I've heard in years.
Beyond these minor complaints, Shank is the kind of arcade experience we don't see enough of these days. The combat is a lot of fun in short spurts and the graphics are to die for. It also proves that Klei Entertainment are good at more than adorably cute puzzlers. Shank may not be everybody's cup of tea, but once he gets his knives in you he never lets go.