Review: Shank (PSN)

I vividly remember the first time I played Shank one year ago at the Penny Arcade Expo. It sticks out in my mind not because I was so impressed with its sense of style and good-natured, over-the-top violence, but because something about the game's presentation tapped right into my old adolescent subconscious. After about thirty seconds of gameplay, I apparently forgot where I was and exclaimed the first thing that came to mind:

"This game is fucking ridiculous!"

To which a group of pre-teens looked at me incredulously and giggled while their father gave me a stern look. Oops.

Though it's been a full year since I got my hands on Shank (and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that I'm not fit to be a parent), those few extraordinary minutes were enough to convince me to buy it as soon as it was available for download. But five minutes of creative, celebratory violence doesn't necessarily guarantee five hours of solid entertainment. Now that I've battled a frustrating control system, trudged through fight after protracted fight and experienced a muddled, relatively disappointing storyline, I'm left with a totally different verdict:

This game is fucking ridiculous...but it's not all that much fun. Shank is divided up into two discrete modes, comprising a single-player campaign — the real meat of Shank, if you will — and a brief co-operative campaign that functions as a prequel to the events of the main game. While each campaign has a few standout moments and some entertaining cinematics to tie the whole thing together, the same problems persist across the board.

Shank is steeped in a Robert Rodriguez-inspired Mexican aesthetic, chock-full of booze, babes and badasses. It's offensive and unflinchingly politically incorrect, but in that tongue-in-cheek way that made Rodriguez' El Mariachi trilogy so much fun. In fact, I'd always thought its gritty, gruesome atmosphere was perfectly suited for a video game adaptation. Unfortunately, that spirit fails to translate well to Shank, whose presentation comes across as awkward and inconsistent throughout.

Its cartoony visual style, with its bold lines and exaggerated proportions, leaves the characters looking kind of soft and almost cutesy (at least when they're not gushing blood or missing extremities, anyway). That's coupled with a story that's vague and difficult to decipher, which makes the events of the game tough to care about. The result is a game that feels at odds with itself — at times funny, at others disgusting, with no real consistency to speak of.

Calling to mind great brawlers like Streets of Rage, Final Fight and Castle Crashers, Shank slices, saws, and shoots everything that stands in his two-dimensional path with bravado. Part of the game's learning curve and long-term appeal comes from experimenting with the various weapons you come across and learning how to adjust your tactics based on the enemies and terrain at hand.

But the thrill of leaping onto bad dudes and creatively disemboweling them loses its appeal once the game's control flaws become apparent. Dodging incoming attacks and canceling out of moves that you've begun to perform are tricky, if not downright impossible at times. Dodging feels clunky and imprecise when compared to something like Bayonetta or even Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and that can lead to a number of frustrating, unintentional deaths. It's unclear to me whether the lack of a reliable defensive move set is intentional on the part of the developer or just something that didn't get ironed out in playtesting, but it's significantly detrimental to the experience either way.

Shank includes a variety of levels in both modes of play, including seedy strip clubs, dusty cityscapes and criminal hideouts in the jungle, but each level is relatively homogeneous in design. Shank runs to the right, fights a few enemies, and continues going to the right. Occasionally there are minor jumping puzzles where Shank has to shimmy, slide and swing across hazards, but these fail to change or increase in difficulty as the game progresses. As a result, they're more of an inconvenience than a worthwhile addition to the gameplay.

Each level is capped off with a boss fight against a lumbering, oversized powerhouse of a humanoid. While there are a few nuances to each battle, they all boil down to the same basic gameplan: dodge their attacks, wait for them to injure themselves, and then strike while they're stunned. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The faults with Shank's pacing and controls in the single-player mode carry over to the co-operative campaign, but the addition of some clever (and brutal) tag-team abilities helps compensate for inconsistent dodging and canceling abilities. While an online multiplayer mode would have been nice, there's no question that playing an old-fashioned brawler is a lot more fun with a buddy sitting next to you.

Having another person to share the experience with made the co-operative campaign a great deal more enjoyable than the single-player campaign, but much of that might have to do with the fact that the co-op mode is significantly shorter. We managed to run it start-to-finish in just under 90 minutes, and even that felt a little bit long, especially given the game's insistence on stretching each level out too long with few too many enemy encounters, then capping each level off with a nearly identical boss fight.

Shank is a perfect example of a great concept that fails to grow over time. After the first thirty minutes, you'll have seen just about everything the game has to offer. It's a shame, because those first thirty minutes are a whole lot of fun; however, once the repetitive nature of the game becomes apparent, you'll probably end up feeling short-changed.

Recommended for:

  • Ardent fans of Robert Rodriguez' style of dirty, gritty Mexploitation films who are willing to overlook some frustrating gameplay elements in the interest of some raunchy, Grindhouse-esque fun

Not Recommended for:

  • Hardcore brawler fans searching for the next high-quality beat-'em-up; a frustrating dodging and canceling system makes Shank difficult to recommend, especially with games like Castle Crashers and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game available on multiple platforms
  • Friends who like playing games together — Shank's multiplayer campaign is short and offline-only
  • Repetitive enemy design and cookie-cutter boss fights
  • Its awkward, cartoony art style, which clashes uncomfortably with the violence and depravity that define the game's narrative

Shank is available on PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade for $14.99/1200 Microsoft Points. The reviewer purchased a copy on PSN, completed the single-player mode on normal difficulty and also played through the co-operative multiplayer mode, earning eleven of twelve possible trophies.

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