As we come into the premium release time of year, every developer and publisher is trying to find that hook to get your gaming dollar. The calendar is chock-a-block full of exciting titles, yet my eyes are
constantly gazing towards the cheap end of the spectrum. Maybe it's because I'm a tight-arse, or maybe it's the bumper crop of brilliant arcade titles that are pushing the boundaries and becoming more than legitimate contenders. The last month has seen some stellar additions, no matter what your flavour is. Whether you like them short and sweet, with a dash of purgatory, like Limbo, prefer the strategic elements of Deadliest Warrior or the classic tomfoolery of action RPG DeathSpank, there's something for everyone as the Winter of Arcade draws to a close. But wait... there's just enough time to squeeze one more action-packed pistolero into your hard drive. Brace yourself for Shank.
Don't let the fact that it's an animated title fool you. Shank is as blood-soaked and down and dirty as you can get. Surprisingly, you play the role of stab-tastic lead, Shank in this classic tale of revenge. It's been five years since his former brother in arms killed his beloved and left him for dead at the behest of kingpin Cesar, and now it's time for some payback! Gameplay is very straightforward, with some simplified platforming, bosses and mini-bosses breaking up the hordes of typecast goons you'll slaughter by the hundreds. The pacing is spot on, as is the well balanced fighting mechanics, but I'll get to that a little later.
The most immediate thing you'll notice is the slick comic book styled visuals. Jeff Agata should be commended for such a brilliant and distinct look, somehow creating a style that's a mesh of comic book icons Humerto Ramos and J. Scott Campbell, without leaning too heavily to either. Characters are ridiculously blown out of proportion where necessary, but most are nailed with an economy of line and subtlety that is quite arresting. Coupled with some magnificent silhouetted scenes and a few subtle nods to Frank Miller's Sin City, and you've got a comic book guy's wet dream.
These are enhanced spectacularly by the Spaghetti Western soundtrack. Vincent de Vera and Jason Garner have composed a captivating score (available for free download on the Shank site) that instantly brings to mind the films and style of Quentin Tarantino and more particularly Robert Rodriguez, and really immerses you into the adventure. In fact, this really feels like an animated version of Rodriguez's Mariachi trilogy. Our hero, left for dead, lamenting the loss of his love, vows vengeance on a crime boss and massacres anything between him and his goal, and I didn't have a single problem with it.
Combat is remarkably deep, and later on, involves an element of strategy, rather than just rushing in head first for some hacky-slashy button bashing. Initially, you'll start with dual daggers (or "shanks"), twin pistols and a chainsaw. Later, you'll have a choice between twin pistols, an uzi or a shotgun as your firearm, and switch between machetes, katana and a chain for your heavy attack. The daggers are a light attack, the chainsaw is slower and heavy, and the guns tend to keep enemies at a distance, and that's only the beginning. Each weapon has a stylistic animation and as you string combinations together, the longer and more intricate your dance of death becomes.
By holding down and slashing upwards you can launch enemies into the air and give yourself a welcome respite, or use "pounce" to leap at a classic stereotype and embed your daggers into them and then either send them to meet their maker (with a different animation for each weapon, the double tap with the shotgun, in particular, is fan-freakin-tastic) or stake them to the ground and use your guns to keep their charging cohorts at bay. It gets better. There's also a grab button, with a oh-so-damned satisfying finishing move that I may have become troublingly addicted to.
You can just shank the living crap out of your victim, but that it so pedestrian. I prefer to either shove a shotgun in their face or whack a grenade down their throat and kablammo! Alternately, the chains are particularly visceral. You wrap them around their neck and tighten and tighten until they draw their last breath. Shank is about as in your face and visceral as it gets, and the bosses take the proverbial cake (as do their particularly grizzly ends).
Each boss is a south of the border/pop culture cliche that fits Shank like a glove (not literally). From the first fight against a masked lucha libre, to the charging behemoth Toro, the sexy cat-house operator Casandra, the massive Gimp you must keep at bay with his teddy-bear headed playmates, the John Waters-esque priest right down to kingpin Cesar. Most bosses dwarf you in size, and those that don't provide ample challenge physically, make up what they lack in size, with speed and tactics. Blocking is essential, though in reality, your block is more of a God of War styled dash.
I would have preferred a proper block, however, the "dash" is more in keeping with the frantic pace of Shank, and only added to the intensity. And that's pretty much Shank in a nutshell. You'll need to pick and choose your attacks and your moments to unleash them, working out which suits the particular situation best, and that aspect of it was very rewarding, and will have me going back for more.
The pop culture love don't stop there though. There are a slew of unlockable character skins, some attached to achievements/trophies, others hidden via ye olde cheat codes or rewards for slaughtering a prerequisite number of a certain type of enemies. My favourites have to be the Bruce Lee Shank "Game of Death" skin when you defeat 1,000 enemies, the "Don't call me Wolverine" Shank (which it clearly is)
skin for finishing on hard difficulty, the Leonidas "300" Spartan Shank for completing co-op mode and the "DeathSpank" Shank, for inputting a certain code after you beat the game. While none of these make any actual difference, or earn you additional weaponry, it is fun as all hell reliving the adventure as some of the action genre's more bad-arse heroes.
At just under twenty bucks, Shank is great value for money. The look and score is sex on legs, the gameplay is solid and racking up combos is painfully addictive. The boss battles and platforming give you just the right amount of challenge before frustration kicks in, and those bitching about its length (at about 4-5 hours single player) should note (a) with replayability and co-op you can double or triple that number, as co-op is a completely different story (b) it'll set you back less than the price of a Modern Warfare 2 map pack (c) it lasts longer than the Modern Warfare 2 or Kane and Lynch 2 campaign, and comes in at one fifth the price.
The minute I defeated Cesar, the game's final boss, I immediately restarted on hard to get my kill count up, and continue to unlock skins and other achievements and trophies that still eluded me, and you can't give any title a more ringing endorsement than that now, can you?