Saturday, January 28, 2012

Review: Shank

I'm going to put this as bluntly as possible – Shank is a game that rides on the same note, from the second you start it up until the second before the end credits roll. It does one thing right and one thing only (two if ambiance counts – I'll explain later), and any attempt at anything else falls flat on its face. But here's the thing – if you can do the big thing right, you'll have yourself a great game, regardless of the little flaws! Some games have the drive to kick ass, but end up flopping in certain medium sized areas. For instance, Shadows Of The Damned could've been fantastic if the bosses were a test of skill instead of patience. Shank gets the main thing right, which puts it a cut above the rest, but it's the little things that drags it down

Shank's story is a bit of a tricky one to tell, because you only get one part if you play the co-op mode, and the other part through single player mode. While it gives them room to make a different campaign for the co-op mode, it's a bit perplexing – wouldn't it make more sense to have different stories? If you've only played the single player, all you'd get is that Shank is left for dead while his girlfriend gets nabbed and killed by some guys from a crew he was a part of, but if you've played the co-op mode, you'll learn that Shank worked for the mob. Not that it matters too much, because the story sucks. It tries to be an epic mobster story and then an epic revenge story, but both of them don't really have any prescence to the player. It just feels like it's... there because hey, every game needs a story. To its credit, it has some nice action scenes, especially at the end, but they're brief and... that's about it.

Apparently, every game needs at least two gameplay elements as well, because at times, you'll be required to do some platforming. Usually, it involves swinging from hanging skulls to climbing up and down poles and across walls. It never really leads itself to too many exciting situations, and most of the “excitement” comes from timing some jumps right when you slide down some slants. It's usually there in little bursts, which is what softens the blow, but still, it screams variety for the sake of variety.

Thankfully, it's overshadowed by the beat em up gameplay. This is what they put all of their effort into and it really shows. Like a beat em up, the idea is to go through and fight off tons of enemies before proceeding to the next bit, but Shank goes many steps beyond the likes of Double Dragon and even Scott Pilgrim (which was released at roughly the same time as this). You fight with a set of knives, a heavy weapon (for instance, a chainsaw) and some firearms (for instance, dual pistols). The idea is to combine them to make some combos that flow very well while managing to fuck shit up.

Here's the thing – Shank may seem like a mindless button masher, but as you progress, you'll find that you'll need to utilize the different weapons properly, the two grab attacks right, the grenade attacks right and the guard command... period. The variety of enemies will range from fodder, to people who will dodge and use quick attacks, and then people who will give you a hard time in general. Don't forget the big guys, who will have more health and hit harder. You may think “meh it's just a beat em up”, but here's the thing – as you play through it, it'll start to click and it becomes very easy to get absorbed into it.

It pisses me off that it's only 3 hours long because as you really, really start to get into it, bam, it's over. While it would mean that the shitty story would have to go on longer, this is one of those games that can afford to do so because the gameplay is just so fucking good! It's worse when you play with somebody else because it affects two people – especially since it, too, is only 3 hours long. Fuck, it's frustrating when a game made in recent times, arcade or boxed, is as short as a sneeze, especially since mainstream critics back in the sixth generation considered 10 hours too short... nyeh.

I suppose to increase replay value, the hard difficulty mode has zero checkpoints. Die at all in a level, and you start from square one. While this might sound like a great idea, this is when the cheap moments can hurt. Now, it didn't really hurt in the normal mode because there are fairly well spread out checkpoints, but in hard mode, every niggling little hit that fucks a few jumps over, every slight miscalculation – yeah, it'll fuck you over and may piss you off, but it's quick to make you perservere – it'll force you to develop better strategies and combos, and if there's any cosolation, levels tend to take between 10 and 15 minutes, plus bosses have their own levels, so if you die against a boss, well, no big deal, because you'll just start back at the beginning of the fight.

The boss fights are quite well designed. The idea is to observe their patterns and then exploit the holes – for instance, the three giant bosses will charge into you, and if you dodge them, they'll hit the wall and will be stunned, meaning you'll need to use the jumping grab attack to deal some damage... by stabbing them in the back... with a chainsaw. Yeah, that's fucken badass. But usually, you just combine your knives and heavier weapons to kick their asses when they briefly stop attacking without getting yours kicked. Like with the enemies, the idea IS to know how to combo proficiently – no good just mashing buttons like a monkey.

Shank looks like something you'd expect to see on Adult Swim. It has a cartoony look with some crispy gritty colors, grittier background designs and some fluid animation, especially in the attacks. Unfortunately, it's to a fault in the heat of combat, because you have to let the whole animation finish before moving onto the next. It might not seem like much, but when you need to deal with crowds of enemies (especially with two or more big guys), it can be a bitch. It's a shame that the fluid animation can lead to such a flaw, because it's commendable that there are folks who do care about the quality of animation – as opposed to some half assed sped up 20 frames per second that is anime (I like the occasional anime but you have to admit, American animation does tend to have better animation). Plus the action scenes do look pretty cool and manage to overshadow the shitty story.

Above all else, it has excellent ambiance. Not just in the crispy, gritty colors and violent animations, but also in the music. It sounds like something that'd fit well in a western movie, like the final shootout between the bad guy and the good guy. It may not go with the constant violence at first, but after a while, you'll find it much more suitable than some peppy upbeat music, plus given the context of the story, yeah, it makes a lot more sense too.

But I got a couple of issues with the sound design. One, the voice acting sucks. Ideally, Shank should be a badass, but he sounds even sillier than Christian Bale's Batman voice, which clashes with everything he does and (surprisingly) all without the humor of, well, Christian Bale's Batman, and the rest, well, they're fine on a fundamental level, but that's it. Two, the equalizing is terrible. If, on a fixed screen, Shank is on one side, you'll only hear everything out of that speaker. After a while, it starts to screw with my hearing a bit and I can imagine how annoying it can get. It doesn't happen very often, but it is annoying to say the least.

It's almost criminal that this game gets overlooked by people, because even though it gets only a couple of things right, those couple of things are fucking important to the game. The only thing that really lets it down is the story – it could've been a thousand times better, but I guess it's the price to pay. Beating enemies up with knives, chainsaws, machettes and uzis is just so much fun and very satisfying to pass up.

8/10 (Great)

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