Shank baffles me.
This game has some money behind it and feels like it has more backing than the usual Xbox Live Arcade fare. This game desperately wants to stand out because of its brutal violence. This is an arcade game that wants to stand atop the bodies of hundreds of failed arcade games with its chainsaw held aloft and scream, "I'm better than you!"
Despite all of this, I could never shake the feeling that I was playing an online Flash game in HD, and that is its biggest downfall.
The basic idea behind Shank is to take the 2-D side-scrolling beat-'em-up genre, which has been largely forgotten since the mid-'90s, and turn up the violence way past the expected norm. By the time the opening sequence is done, the titular character Shank is dual-wielding pistols, decimating foes with his huge knife, and carrying a chainsaw on his back just for good measure. Another difference is the production values. The pixelated sprites of yesterday are long gone and replaced by silky-smooth vector art, although the art style further reinforces the sense that you're playing an online Flash game.
The setup is simple: Several years before the game, Shank was betrayed and "killed" by his employers (a drug cartel). Shank comes back from the dead and wants to kill everything that had any association with the betrayal. The story goes a bit deeper than most beat-'em-ups by interjecting a cut scene every few levels to flesh out some of the backstory, but Shank really boils down to running to the right and killing everything that moves.
Thankfully, Shank does a relatively good job of this. The action is quick, brutal, with combat system that's deep enough to keep you interested, and the game is just difficult enough so that it's not a complete and utter cakewalk. Shank plays a bit like what you would expect out of a 2-D version of Devil May Cry if you replaced the cheeseball '80s action setting with Hispanic flair. Shank can technically block (unlike Dante), but it doesn't work very well, and you're better off dodging instead. Otherwise, they play similarly. Shank has a weak attack, a strong attack, and ranged attack, and these can all be combined in various stylish manners to look like a complete badass when you kill hundreds of random thugs and the occasional boss. It flows together seamlessly, and you'll be slaughtering hordes in little to no time.
While you may look incredibly cool during the killing spree, the gameplay starts to wear thin far too quickly. Other than the bosses, Shank is presented with a total of four different types of enemies: standard thugs, big thugs, female thugs and dogs. There's a little variance as to the weapon they're carrying, but that's about it. As a result, I relied heavily on the shotgun and chainsaw as the game wore on — to the point where I was sacrificing style and looking awesome just so I could move past the wave of enemies and get to the next boss fight. The combat is fun, but there aren't enough enemy types to keep it fun for an extended period of time. On top of that, there's no incentive whatsoever to perform a variety of moves to keep things fresh, and that really harms the experience. Unlike games like Devil May Cry, there's no point system, and nothing grades you on style. The only thing you're graded on is how quickly you can traverse a level for the sake of the leaderboards, so there's incentive to do anything aside from killing everyone and moving on.
That's not to say that the gameplay experience is bad. So long as you play the game in 20-minute increments, Shank is an absolute blast. The action is quick, merciless and brutal, and that is amplified tenfold during the extraordinary boss fights. Each boss fight requires excellent pattern memorization and lightning-quick reflexes to exploit the boss weakness and get him in a position where you can deal some real damage. The only real disappointment is that the final boss battle isn't nearly as epic as you'd hoped.
It won't take you particularly long to get to the final boss fight because Shank is not a particularly lengthy game. It's a 2 GB download from the XBL Marketplace, but what you get is a five-hour game, with the time split evenly between the single-player and co-op campaigns. The co-op campaign is good, but the lack of online play is completely unacceptable. There is some replayability with a second difficulty setting that removes checkpoints from the levels, and if a bunch of your friends also own the game, you can have a competition for the fastest leaderboard times, but for 2 GB of hard drive space and $15, Shank is not a very high-value title.
The production values are the reason for the cost. Everything in Shank is hand-drawn for HD TVs. Every background, animation, enemy and bullet was carefully hand-drawn for this title, and it shows. If you can shake the feeling that you're just playing an online Flash game (admittedly, it's very difficult to go back once you've noticed it), Shank is a gorgeous-looking title.
Fully voiced games are kind of rare for downloadable titles, but once again, Shank's sharp production values show in the aural department, with mostly competent voice acting for every line in the game as well as a terrific soundtrack that really sets the perfect mood for the game. The music was so good that despite the lengthy load times, I loathed the end of them because that meant the enjoyable guitar tune would fade out.
Shank continues to baffle me. This game has terrific production values and had the money to look incredible, sound amazing, play great and offer endless replayability. The final product looks and sounds great, but the production values faltered in the actual gameplay. Even at just over two hours in length, Shank feels like a chore by the time you're done. You're not beating it for the excitement of the gameplay, and you're not beating it for the thrill of the story; you're simply finishing it to finish it. Shank shows the incredible promise of games like Devil May Cry and God of War in the 2-D realm, but it stumbles too much in the gameplay department to be worth most people's time or money. It's fast, merciless and brutal, but it's not a lot of fun to play. Unless you're out of other options for 2-D brawlers and have money burning a hole in your pocket, hold off on Shank. It's still a decent title, but for 2 GB and $15, there are better ways to spend your hard drive space, money and time.
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