Review: Shank

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Shank is a game you play with beer, chips and a dumb grin on your face, the kind of grin you get when the hero’s sole responsibility is leaving a trail of kicked asses in his wake.

Such is the simple, barbaric pleasure in Klei Entertainment’s short offering to the beat-em-up genre.

It’s an artistic, bloody and whimsical exploration of the art of thug killing, carrying hints of films like “Desperado” or “Kill Bill” and merging them with the essence of side-scrolling attack-a-thons like the 8-bit Ninja Gaiden. It’s simple, brutal and joyfully un-epic fun.

You play Shank, who wants revenge on a cadre of unique villains for the betrayal and murder of his beloved. His plan is simple: Kill everyone.

While that sounds like every beat-em-up that lands on your screen, the real grace of “Shank” can be found in its gameplay and its animated-comic style.

There’s a visual life that pervades everything from the characters to the drawn-up scenery.
The emphasis on art and animation is apparent in subtle details, like the extreme facial expressions bigger enemies make before attacking, or the subtle bounce Shank has in his steps.

Instead of fluid motion, fights boast a lot of white flashes, puffs of smoke and flying blood. Cinema screens made me feel like I was watching something on Cartoon Network, but caked in blood.

Supporting this artistic vision are waves of relentless, body-piling action.
Shank deals with hordes of many of the same-looking foes, but he gets to kill them in a multitude of ways. Aside from his shanks, he’s got machetes, a katana, a chainsaw and chains. That’s just the hand-to-hand stuff. He’s also got a pair of pistols, a shotgun and a machine pistol. We also can’t forget grenades.

What struck me about the action wasn’t the weaponry itself, but it’s applications. Shank can grab people and finish them off depending on what weapon you have equipped. Shotgun? Give them a blast to the face. Feel like a grenade? Stuff it in someone’s mouth and pull the pin.

Lots of enjoyment can be found in simply experimenting on how weapons are utilized in certain situations. Do you want to wrap a chain around the neck of a downed bad guy or plunge the katana into his chest? Your arsenal gives you plenty of options.

I also enjoyed the oddball boss characters you encounter in the game, each requiring different methods of attack. Perhaps the strangest encounter remains one with a giant, pot-bellied bondage enthusiast wrapped in “Pulp Fiction”-like gimp gear and flanked by “slaves” who emerged out of a metal chamber dangling from the ceiling. By the way, the game is rated M for Mature.

The only real issue I had with “Shank” is the final boss battle, which will catch even experienced players off guard with difficulty that pales in comparison to anything you face before it.

I’m not averse to challenging boss fights. I actually think there should be more of them.
But the spike between Cesar (the end boss) and every other boss could turn off more casual players looking to sink into the action and story instead of seeking a test of their will. For many, the soul-taking Cesar fight could abruptly slam the door on what’s already a relatively brief three- to four-hour experience.

But in those hours, it would be hard to find a simpler, bloodier route to beat-em-up joy. “Shank” is everything you’d want in a game of this genre, and it also happens to be fun to watch. Slash away.

Shank
Electronic Arts / Klei Entertainment
Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network
Rated M for Mature