What makes something like Shank appealing is a combo system that gives the player access to a great many fun and creative ways to generate cartoon blood.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Format: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3
Game Title: Shank
ESRB Rating: Mature
Release Date: 2010-08-25
If Shank weren't a full gigabyte and a half, it would be the perfect downloadable game.
Here's the problem with the gig-and-a-half size of something like Shank: it negates one of the best parts of shopping for a downloadable game, the instant gratification of having it almost as soon as you push the "buy" button. You browse through a massive catalog of games, finally settle on one, click "buy", and there it is, ready to be played. You can't do that with Shank. Once you hit "buy", you have to go do something else for a little while as it downloads, killing your enthusiasm. By the time you're playing it, the thrill is already gone.
That said, Shank goes to great lengths to get that thrill back.
Shank is something like the story of Kill Bill told via the visual style of Viewtiful Joe (minus all of the faux-3D stuff) if The Bride were played by Marcus Fenix. The controls are a bit like Prince of Persia -- that's the original Prince of Persia, mind you -- and the emphasis on combos brings to mind a two-dimensional version of a recent Ninja Gaiden game. Toss all that in the blender, and voilà: Shank milkshake.
Right off the bat, it's flawed. The intro scenes -- you know, where the names of the developers and publishers get thrown onto the screen in great big comic book font -- are stuttery and skip all over the place on my Xbox. Apparently, this is a known problem, which probably happened because I have an old Xbox with less than a gig free on it, but it's still no way to start a gaming experience. From there, the player is introduced to the game via some quick tutorial screens, after which the incessant killing begins.
You start off with (and always wield) a knife, two pistols, and a chainsaw. Yes, developer Klei chose to give the player a chainsaw right off the bat -- a smart decision, given that it's actually one of the weaker weapons in the game but also one of the most satisfying. The knife is the "weak attack" weapon, the chainsaw is the "strong attack" weapon, and the dual pistols serve as the ranged weapon(s).
As is the case in pretty much any beat 'em up, two-dimensional or not, what you get out of the game is directly proportional to what you put into it. One of the criticisms of the genre is that most games allow you to run up to baddies, spam the "weak attack" button (since the "weak attack" also tends to be the fastest way to confront an enemy) until the baddies die, and then run up to the next set of baddies. This is largely a valid criticism of Shank, though occasional efforts are made to force the player to use a ranged weapon (knocking out baddies at higher elevations) or a strong weapon (knocking over some of the larger and more skilled baddies). Most sequences can be passed simply by pounding on the "X" button until you either beat the game or physically break the controller. A little variety is also introduced by the bosses, but unfortunately the bosses are largely relegated to the status of glorified quick-time events, forcing the player to wait for an opening that happens after a pattern of attacks and then pounding on the right trigger when prompted.
So, yes, you could spam "X", cut up a whole mess of thugs, and get through the game. What makes something like Shank appealing, however, is a combo system that gives the player access to a great many fun and creative ways to generate cartoon blood.
There are moments in the best beat 'em ups -- see the God of War and current-generation Ninja Gaiden franchises for examples -- where it becomes less about progression, and more about...well, "art" is too loaded a word but something like "art". The more that you play, the more that you get used to the controls and the strengths and weaknesses of the various weapons, and the more creative you are allowed to be. Grappling one enemy and taking a second from beating on that enemy to shoot another enemy, after which you can get back to business with the first guy. Well, that's a nicely-implemented option. Picking up the katana and figuring out how to pounce on an average enemy, slice at that enemy with the knife a few times, and finish with the katana, offering no possible opening in which to fight back, is a glorious moment. The game even gives you hints toward combos that you may not have even dreamed up -- you mean that I can feed an enemy a grenade while I'm on top of him? Neat! The only weak link here is in the guns, most of which are too specialized to compete with the trusty double pistol setup, but going from the chainsaw to the dual-machete to the chains to the katana and back again in the choice of power-weapon is a trip.
Obviously, Shank is a violent, unoriginal romp through comic book and video game clichés, but its unabashed approach to those clichés actually makes it somewhat appealing. The action is fast, the dialogue is so silly that it'll make you laugh every so often, and frankly, it's over before it has a chance to get tiresome. Sadists who play Ninja Gaiden on the highest difficulty level have an "Ultra" difficulty level to tinker with here, and people with actual friends can partake in a quickie cooperative campaign as well.
It's 15 bucks for a quick burst of mindless fun. We know that downloadable media is capable of more (see: World of Goo, Braid, Limbo), but it doesn't need to be "more" to be worth the money.