If you've been following Otaku But Gangsta the past few weeks, you know that I've had a hard time shutting up about Shank. The XBLA and PSN downloadable title was tickling my fancy as release day approached, and developers Klei did a nice job of keeping those interested, such as myself, drawn in. They released the game's full soundtrack, slowly unearthed alternate costumes on the game's website, and revealed the methods to unlocking them via Twitter. A few days before release, I felt a bit dirty because of how much I was buying into a game I've never played, and for all I knew, could have been a complete bomb. Am I still a Shank skank after playing the game?
The story follows perennial BMF Shank on his Kill Bill style quest for revenge against the former compatriots who turned on him and left him for dead. Of course leaving a hero for dead is never really the best way to handle villainy, as he'll always come back to settle things. But archetypes never learn, do they? I use the word hero in the loosest sense possible; Shank is not a hero per se, he's just a guy who wants to slaughter a group of people who have less moral values than he. The plot is straight forward, no twists and turns or unexpected events. Like most great B movies, Shank has one main thing to keep you enthralled, the action.
Yep, the action is where Shank truly shines. For a $15 2D downloadable side-scrolling beat'em-up, Shank has a surprisingly deep combat engine. There are designated buttons for light attacks with your shank, heavy attacks with an assortment of tools that would make an executioner blush, and gun attacks that seem to be more useful for complete control of your enemies than anything else. I feel the three button combat system is a lot like Fable II's in a way, allowing you to link together grin-inducing chains of mayhem with minimal effort. Buttons are also designated for blocking, throwing grenades, and Shank's handy pounce attack which launches our protagonist high into the air, out of harm's way most times, and down on top of your enemy, where he's yours to puncture, bludgeon, slice, perforate, or just lock eyes with and have a romantic moment. Mastering the controls is a breeze, and once you figure out which weapons work best on which baddies, you'll be spilling gallons of beautifully drawn enemy blood with stylistic flair and ease.
While the emphasis of Shank is to hurt as many people as humanly possible, there are moments of platforming to break the cycle of being a revenge-fueled homicidal madman. The platforming is fun, incorporating wall runs, wall climbs, swinging over gaps, sliding down slopes, and launching yourself over bottomless pits. I actually found myself wishing Klei added some extended periods of platforming, because the small spurts in which it occurred was quite enjoyable. Then again I'm the type of gamer that gets a huge rush of satisfaction after successfully pitting my reaction and timing against a series of platforms that become increasingly difficult to navigate. Go figure.
I got through the campaign in a little under four hours my first time through. I guess you can call that short, but considering most $60 action games can be beaten in approximately eight hours, I think I got my money's worth. I haven't even had a chance to get through the multiplayer campaign, which is another tale in itself, and I'm sure will extend the unique gameplay by at least an hour. Load times on the Xbox 360 feel much longer than they should be, and while it's never unbearable, you'll be tapping your foot from time to time waiting for a level to load so you can reimmerse yourself in righteous kills.
I really love the art style Klei employed in the game's design. The characters remind me of roles out of Venture Brothers, with a Southwestern tinge. Animations are fluid and crisp as you dismember 8 to 10 enemies at a time on screen with no drop in frame rate. As the frantic action rolls on, cut scenes are played out in comic book style panels in the corner of the screen, most times cluing you in on what you should be ready to disembowel next. Cut scene animation feels more like an interactive graphic novel than a game, with perfectly cheesy voice acting to accompany the beautiful art and animation. One nitpick that stood out was the jerky transitions into/out of cut scenes from the action. Most times it was a sudden jump without so much as a fade or a wipe to switch from story to gameplay. That's me being fickle though, it's just a nitpick, not a sticking point.
The world Shank roams is an eye-pleasing mix of Mexican inspired locales ranging from A to Z; mesas, churches, slaughterhouses, strip clubs, villas, and train cars. Everything is wonderfully presented, and set on a backdrop of the warm comfortable colors of neon lights, the desert, and the sunset.
I've been gushing over Shank's soundtrack since I first heard the mesmerizing title theme. Composers Vincent de Vera and Jason Garner have struck gold with their mix of the classic Southwestern cowboy tune with more modern string chords and electric guitar riffs. Hearing the soundtrack out of context, it's easy to mistake it as the score for a Robert Rodriguez film. In context, it's the perfect aural compliment to Shank's characters, locales, plot, and action. In a time where video game music has seemingly taken a step backwards, Shank ups the ante with it's skillfully crafted melodies.
Buying Shank was a no brainer for me. Six hours and $15 later, I'm still very satisfied with my experience and investments. Hard mode, ten additional character skins, co-op campaign, and speed runs assure that I still have plenty of gameplay hours left. Like the good old Shinobi games, though short, the old school gamer in me has a duty to play through the campaign again and again, for speed, for style, and for the sake of getting through stages completely unscathed.
Buy it if: You're a fan of Robert Rodriguez, fast and stylized fighting, speed runs, action movies, easy achievements
Don't buy it if: You don't play a game after beating it
Value out of $15: $15
The Score: 9 out of 10 Blasters!