Long gone are the days ofDouble Dragon, Ninja Gaiden, and Final Fight, the classic side-scrolling beat-em-up titles I grew up on as a kid while sitting in front of my TV in Mario PJs. The torch was passed to a newer generation of titles, allowing for players to take their weapons and fists off the 2D plain and into the 3D realm of the God of Wars and Devil May Crys. Then there’s Shank, who takes all your fond memories and stabs them repeatedly with a sharpened piece of nostalgia.
Shank is a classic video game tale of revenge: guy loses girl, guy climbs across seedy city skylines and through back alley bars and strip clubs to find her killers, guy fights rough and tumble street trash generically named “Jeffe” and “Roxy”, guy fights larger than life boss battles at the close of each mission, guy finds redemption by killing crime syndicate boss at story’s end. The game was written by God of War co-creator Marianne Krawczyk, who is obviously no stranger to the tune of gore and redemption, a song which Kratos sings in falsetto. In your wake, you leave a trail of lusciously detailed corpses as you travel from left to right in search of justice.
Comparisons between the violently stylized, graphic novel-esque art direction of Shank and the gritty revenge titles of Robert Rodriguez (El mariachi, Desperado, and the soon to be released Machete) will be inescapable. It’s as if the powers that be anticipated on Machete’s release next Friday (September 3rd) to coincicide with this game. I wonder...
Shank pays its respects to classic brawlers with both the good and the bad. The 2D graphics look absolutely stunning and are some of the best in-game artwork you will find in a title on the PSN or Xbox Live, looking like something pulled straight from Samurai Jack. Gorgeous backdrops and cut-scenes achieve a style and feel that nails the sleazy underbelly of a world that has wronged you, as you fight frenzied denizens from the criminal underground you once called home. Coupled with mariachi music and songs composed of wailing guitar notes symbolizing the pain you hope to relinquish by seeking justice, the overall aesthetic puts this title right over the top. The music is a sharp contrast, though, to the cut-scene dialogue or in-game sound effects when playing at the corners of the screen, which seem distant and muddied like they were recorded in an old church. The fighting mechanic is almost as stylized as the game itself. Combos chain together responsively while juggling all your weapons, with buttons assigned for light attacks with your knives, heavy attacks with a variety of handhelds, and another for your arsenal of guns. There also are lunging and grappling attacks which allow you to single out opponents for some personal time, making it easier to prioritize enemies of varying size and strength. And after a long day of shooting and stabbing your way to answers, what better way to recover your health than 40 oz. bottles of malt liquor strewn about the maps? Just what the doctor ordered. Akin to old school side-scrollers was one word: frustration. Inconsistent controls, platforming faux pas, and unrelentingly absurd moments of complete and utter on-screen chaos. Moments like these are whereShank slips and falls on his own blade.
Many of the issues I encountered stemmed from timing with the attacks and their animations. You are often left waiting for Shank to finish shooting over his shoulder or to complete the follow-through on a toss before you can get back into a fluid rhythm of killing up a storm, leaving you susceptible to more punishment when you commit to an uninterruptable attack. Of the same accord, dodging tends to do more harm than it does good with its erratic behavior, over-committing you and often leaving you more vulnerable when standing back up facing away from the guy with a big gun pointed at your head.
The cooperative mode bundled with the game is a full-length precursor to the single-player story, which allows local co-op play for you as Shank and a friend playing Shank’s partner-in-crime, Falcone. It was ultimately a disappointment due to the fact it only allowed for local play and I'm short on people to get stabby with. Failing to integrate online co-op into the release let me down like if you took Shank's cutlery away and gave him a spork. Regardless,Shank may not be the sharpest knife in the sheath, but it sure as hell does a lot of stabbing. By the game’s end—which featured the toughest boss I’ve faced in a long time—I could have cared less about the sometimes faulty controls or climbing to that one ledge where guys knock you off as soon as you reach it. I haven’t had this much fun with a side scrolling beat-em-up since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game on the Nintendo. After all, what would an homage be to the aggravating hours you wasted on cheap scraps with the Andore brothers in Final Fight or that ridiculous jump on treadmills in Double Dragon 2 without issues that are, in essence, just a fault of the genre itself? Ultimately, from the frustration comes infinite reward in beating the game's most difficult parts, a compensation as satisfying as plowing through four hours of enemies to find your girl's killer. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and Shank is serving up the buffet's carving station. [youtube]R_Tv956O6DQ[/youtube]