Shank

Okay, I officially started back at uni today, and this is the last Humble Indie Bundle Review I’ll be writing for a while. The only game remaining after this is Cave Story+. I’ve already played Cave Story, so I need to find time to play the whole thing through and really see the difference before I can comment. This review? Well, it’s Shank by Klei Entertainment.

Shank Review
Shank is a 2D, cartoony, ultra-violent beat-em-up. I’ve been trying to think of a decent game to compare it to but no other 2D game seems to cut it. If Devil May Cry and Kill Bill had a lovechild that came out something like Alien Hominid, that’d be pretty close. The plot is very Kill Bill-ish with the main character, Shank, trying to track down the killers of his girlfriend (actually old friends of his) years after his own near-death; the graphics and ability to pounce on enemies are what reminded me so strongly of Alien Hominid; the combat system is the main focus of the game, with pulling of combos and constant fluent attacks being integral to your success, and this felt very Devil May Cry, even though the focus is different. We’ll get to that later.

Shank is a badass: he’s got a knife, a chainsaw, twin pistols, he’s strong, fast, always angry, he swears a bit, and is maybe just a little over-enthusiastic about killing and maiming every animal, mineral and vegetable between himself and Cesar [now redundant spoiler warning]. Is he likable? Is he doing the right thing? Who cares. The point is, you have lots of killing and maiming to do if your aim is to partake in this game, so turn away immediately if you’re not into violence.

Gameplay is split into separate campaigns for single player and local co-op (which works very well with two 360 controllers). For single player mode there are Normal and Hard difficulties – I’m ashamed to say I shied away from hard as there are no checkpoints during each level and this quickly became frustrating to me. In co-op mode player’s can revive each other with about a third hp, and you don’t out-right loose until both are down at once, which on the whole makes it a lot easier for everything but boss fights or screens packed with enemies. There are less free-running type areas in co-op levels than in single player, and co-op also makes intuitive use of co-operative mechanics for taking down bosses (these are virtually a requirement, though you could grind down their health with basic attacks if you wanted to be boring).

Graphics in the game are a little mixed up. Some of the screenshots I have are truly stunning, with advanced techniques being used to give a real visual flair to the 2D, heavily stylized scenery and characters. However, cut scenes often suffer from jarringly ugly character drawings. On the whole though it’s nice to see a game doing something artistic, and it is very successful during gameplay. Shank’s movements are very smooth, which is important in this type of fighting game, enemies are bright and varied, blood flies, limbs contort in unpleasant ways – you couldn’t really ask for more.

If there’s one thing more jarring than the cut scene graphics though, it’s the voice acting. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes the cut scene graphics live up to their gameplay counterpart, the sound effects in the game are pretty good, the music is top-shelf material, but the voice acting is just…dire. Still, this isn’t a movie, and the plot isn’t that great, so it’s easy to just sit back and laugh at the cut scenes in the same way you can laugh at the ludicrous amounts of gore and immense amount of punishment people in Shank’s world can survive.

Speaking of punishment, Shank can use a total of three weapons at any one time. At the beginning of the game these will be the aforementioned twin-pistols, chainsaw and knife. That’s right, you start with a chainsaw. Throughout the game you will unlock a number of other weapons and can switch your heavy weapon and ranged weapon mid-combat to tackle different situations and enemy variations. Unlike in Devil May Cry where different attacks and combos rely on button timing and direction presses, combat in Shank relies on chaining together different weapon types into one long attack. I could, for instance, swing my knives at an enemy, then hit the ranged button to whip them into the air and juggle for a while, or mix in some strokes with the machetes to add extra damage while keeping up my rate of attack. There are a lot of buttons used in playing Shank, so I won’t describe the full control system.

I never tried it with a keyboard as the 360 controller seemed to make a lot of sense here. I found the controls to be fairly fluid, though I often just resorted to button mashing when no specific tactic was called for, so combat did become a little stale as I got to the end of them game. Bosses were a highlight, and fairly inventive, but I found too many of them were just massive, muscle-ridden blokes at the heart of it.

There is a sequel in development – due out soon I think – and I can see why. Shank is explosive fun in single player, and I had a lot of fun completing the co-op campaign with a friend too. If you’re a completist you can try your hand at hard mode or try to unlock all the costumes. Fortunately, it seems like Klei are learning from their mistakes and working to make Shank 2 much more fun on the combat-system front, so maybe I won’t just be able to get by on button-mashing when/if I pick up the sequel. I say if, because honestly, I’m not sure I will. Shank was fun, and I’ve never really seen a 2D beat-em-up quite like it, but as I say, the combat was getting a bit monotonous towards the end, and I wasn’t trilled by the story either.

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