Shank is what happens when you take side scrolling beat-em-up classics like Double Dragon and Golden Axe, mix in a story taken straight out of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s filmographies, and add a dash of mediocre platforming for good measure. But does it work?
Grindhouse should be a perfect fit for video games; it already seems that most games are unintentionally narratively overwrought, revenge-obsessed and awfully cheesy. But where House of the Dead: Overkill went slightly too far with its over-the-top swearing and self-aware gags, Shank swings the other way, taking itself too seriously with its gruff voice work and overabundance of cutscenes. The story is a clichéd tale of revenge set at some ill-defined time, in some dusty but otherwise undefined place. The game likes to pretend that you give a shit about the story, but you don’t and there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before.
Ninety percent of the game is combat – a repetitive button-mashing affair that will be familiar to most gamers in either a pleasant or boring way. Enemies are mostly armed with knives, but there are the occasional gun-toting enemies that will need to be dispatched quickly before their nuisance bullets can interrupt your flow of death-dealing. There are also large enemies that are probably supposed to break up the repetition, but mostly serve to artificially increase the difficulty by being immune to your special pounce move.
How special is the pounce? Well, it has a signature sound and screen blur, so you know it must be pretty fucking special. With one or two giant enemies on screen you can slowly batter them down with cheesy aerial heavy attacks, but as soon as there are more than that and they’re wielding flamethrowers, grenade launchers or – worst of all – riot shields and shotguns, they become frustratingly difficult to deal with.
That other ten percent of the game is made up of rudimentary platforming. The worst part of it is the dev’s own apparent lack of faith in these sections, demonstrated by moments of insulting hand-holding when the game slows to a crawl to ensure you have time to make a jump. Instead of breaking immersion with the dullest implementation of bullet-time ever, the game would have been better served by the removal of these fatal jumps, if not the platforming elements altogether.
The wanton violence is fitting with the grindhouse styling, but in turn it put me in mind of Hotline Miami, and Shank suffers in that comparison. When you die in Hotline Miami it’s because you weren’t fast enough, precise enough or because you hesitated when you needed to be killing fucks instead of thinking. When you die in Shank it’s simply because you didn’t mash the buttons hard enough.
That’s not entirely fair – there are combos and there are strategies, but the use of them is obfuscated by the poor tool tips. In an effort to be cross-platform-friendly (or due to laziness, you decide) the controls aren’t displayed on screen, instead the developers chose to display icons of Shank performing his different actions. So, at the start of the game when you should be learning combos, you’re instead trying to figure out what the hell that icon represents and what button it corresponds with.
Speaking of controls, theoretically it should work fine on keyboard, but the main action keys are Left Shift, Left Ctrl and Left Alt, all of which will likely be situated around your Fn and Windows keys. Whilst the devs have been smart enough to disable the Windows key, it still means a lot of misplaced key strokes. It’ll probably make your life easier if you bust out that faithful old Xbox 360 controller that is sadly all-but necessary in console-centric industry. And don’t think of swapping between controllers on the fly – the Options menu will lead you to believe you can, but it simply doesn’t work, and restarting the game could very well lose you a lot of progress due to sparse checkpoints.
Stylistically Shank is great, dripping with blood and malt liquor, and coated in a thick layer of grindhouse grime, but the palette is a lackluster blend of browns and greys. The art is apparently “graphic novel” style, but it just makes me think of Saturday morning cartoons and Penny Arcade. Perhaps saying that will betray my ignorance of some particular comic art style, but I’m sure many other people will be thinking the same thing as me; it’s just up to you whether that’s a good thing or bad.
I like some of the small touches and attention to detail in the game, like the way every enemy has a suitably cheesy name beside their health bar. I also like the way the titular Shank slowly dons more and more weapons as he collects them – I’m not sure if it’s meta-commentary on the ridiculousness of gaming arsenals and the characters that lug them around, or if the devs just thought it would make him look more bad-ass, but I’ll assume the former and continue to appreciate the absurdity.
Shank should be right up my alley – I appreciate Robert Rodriguez in all his trashy glory, and I grew up on a diet of Golden Axes, Double Dragons and Metal Slugs – but it just doesn’t grab me. If you really want an homage to old-school beat-em-ups, Castle Crashers does it better. That said, it’s only 3-4 hours from start to finish, and there are moments of fun in-amongst the repetitive combat and pointless cutscenes. if it’s already in your backlog you could find worse ways of wasting a rainy Sunday afternoon.