Shank - Xbox Live Arcade

For a genre that was considered all but dead just a month ago, we’re really seen a revival of the side scrolling beat-em-up in these past weeks. The recent Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game was a faithful and fun tribute to classics such as River City Ransom. Shank is also an ode to the brawler, but with a 2D plain instead of Pilgrim’s 3D. Oh, and lots and lots and lots more gore.

Shank is in no way a subtle experience. Within seconds you will be shoving a chainsaw into an enemies’ face right before you juggle them in the air with your pistols. It’s one of those games where you can convince someone to play it based purely on descriptions of some of the moves.

“Dude, you can pin a guy to the ground with your knife, and then hold him there while you gun down everyone around him, before unloading a shotgun blast point blank into the guy’s face.”

“Oh man, you can shove a grenade into a dude’s mouth, and then punch them so their head explodes!”

Doesn’t that make you want to try this game out? I know that would have been more than enough to get me to play it. However, kick-awesome descriptions do not a great game make. Last year’s Scribblenauts sounded amazing when you described what you could do, but once you actually got a hold of the game it wasn’t nearly as much fun to do these things as it was to hear about them. Ok yes one could argue Scribblenauts and Shank are two very different games, one containing significantly less stabbing than the other one, but you see the point I’m trying to make. With Shank however, it is actually more fun to pull these moves off yourself.

When you really break it down, Shank is a pretty simple game. Run to the right and kill any man or beast that dares stand in your way. While some people seem to be writing it off as a shallow experience, I had the opposite reaction. I was surprised with how deep the fighting system went, and pleased at the sheer amount of possibilities for violent dispatches of foes.

While you start off the game with only pistols and a chainsaw (and your trusty shank of course), by the end you’re wielding shotguns and katanas and all sorts of insanity. These weapons can all be switched at the press of a button, making it easy to change things up if you decide mid-murder that maybe a guy should be shot in the face with a shotgun rather than choked out with chains. Plus as the levels progress, enemies will start to block certain attacks, which means you’ll have to employ different strategies to take them out.

Overall the combat in Shank is brutal and satisfying. It has a good flow to it and keeps everything fresh by constantly introducing new weapons and moves. I do however, have a couple of combat-related issues.

The first is with the boss fights, which are for the most part, pretty underwhelming. Nearly all of them are a matter of uncovering their one weakness, and just dodging them as they walk back and forth until you can exploit it. Only the final boss fight seemed to require some actual strategy, so these battles were a touch disappointing.

The other is with the guns, particularly shooting above you. The short of it is, you can’t. You can’t fire the guns directly above you. This maybe wouldn’t be a problem if later in the game there weren’t enemies on platforms right above you. To take them down, you have to awkwardly position yourself in the center of the screen and fire diagonally at them; all while enemies on the ground are trying to kill you. It’s not game crippling by any means, but I have to believe that this character has the ability to point a gun straight up.

There actually is some mild platforming on top of all the combat. It’s all pretty basic and has you swinging across pits or climbing up walls or across pipes. There’s also a wall run. All of it is very simple to pull off and while I understand a potential need to break up the action, the platforming sequences are a tad on the unnecessary side and sometimes feel like padding. There is also a particularly irritating sequence later on where missiles are constantly being fired at you while you’re trying to make these jumps.

Of course one can't talk about this game without mentioning the visuals. I'm sure by even the screenshots you can tell this is great looking game, but it's even more impressive to see it in action. The animation is a joy to watch as you move fluidly from one move into the next. It's like a saturday morning cartoon, but with a lot more murder. 

The single player campaign will take you around 3 hours on the Normal difficulty. Hard will take longer as it is clearly presents more challenging enemies, and also completely takes away checkpoints. There is also a co-op mode, which is completely separate from the main story. It’s definitely worth checking out but it too is quite short.

Despite a few shortcomings, Shank is a fun and satisfying experience that I feel is definitely worth its 15 dollars asking price. Did I mention that you can pin a guy to the ground and then unload two shotgun blasts into his face at point blank range? I’m just sayin’….