Slash your way through the criminals who murdered your girlfriend.
PC Release: October 26, 2010
By Ian Coppock
It’s a legit fact that September is the most boring month on the calendar. It’s the waiting period between summer and autumn; nothing really happens and it seems to stretch on much longer than necessary (just ask Green Day). In an effort to shake September up, this month’s slate of weekend reviews are all about fighting and surviving (things that students who are just now enrolling in or returning to school should also be able to relate to). With excitement and adrenaline in mind, it’s time to talk about Shank.
Developed by the fine Canadians over at Klei (the creators of Don’t Starve and Mark of the Ninja), Shank is a side-scrolling beat ’em up for which the term “gritty” seems an inadequate descriptor. This game isn’t “gritty” so much as “choked to the brim with sand, blood, and bullets.” Shank emphasizes running from left to right and killing as many dudes as possible with as many swords, guns and grenades as possible… all while chugging down bottles of tequila. Brain cells not included.
Shank begins when its titular hero walks into a bar looking for the man who killed his girlfriend; as these stories go, things quickly get bloody and Shank resolves to fight his way to the killer instead of talking. As far as games go, Shank is pretty meta; the title is named both for its protagonist and for the primary means by which that protagonist ends lives. It turns out that stabbing someone repeatedly is a great way to end a bar fight. Who knew?
Shank‘s gameplay is reminiscent of both fighting games and old-school, side-scrolling shoot ’em ups that put arcades on the map. As Shank, players can dispatch foes with a versatile mix of knife fighting, heavy melee weapons, and guns. Shank’s shank makes for a quick-handed weapon but doesn’t do all that much damage, while heavier weapons like chainsaws make short work of enemy life bars at the expense of speed. Guns and grenades, while not as up-close and personal as a knife, are effective at beating back hordes of enemies or hitting distant foes.
In addition to his skill with a knife, Shank is quite the gymnast, able to sprint long distances and leap from rooftop to rooftop with terrifying grace. Players can also use their knife as a climbing tool to ascend buildings or wall-run from one vantage point to another. If Shank takes too much damage, players can reach for a nearby bottle of tequila to restore his health. Enemies out for Shank’s blood come in all shapes and sizes but generally consist of lightweight pugilists, attack dogs, and freakishly huge brawlers.
Shank‘s gameplay is much more graceful than knifing hordes of enemies might imply. The character’s movements are extremely fluid, allowing players to leap between surfaces and pounce onto foes with ease. Weapons are also made easy to switch between for on-the-fly tactical adjustments. As players progress through the game, they can upgrade Shank’s arsenal with newfound killing tools like shotguns and SMGs. The katana is particularly effective at slicing foes into sushi.
Shank‘s combat, though imperfect, is elegant. It’s not a sophisticated setup—players simply select a weapon and button-mash their way to victory—but it scores points for making it simple to switch between weapons and for its aforementioned acrobatic freedom. The one major drawback is that the shotgun is OP; so OP, in fact, that everything the game throws at Shank after he gets it (even bosses) fold like hot laundry. This doesn’t make the game un-fun, but boy does it water down the challenge. Never bring a hatchet to a shotgun fight.
The thing about Shank that’s not so watered down is its artwork; holy crap is this game gory. Shank is quite liberal in its portrayal of violence, with execution and fight scenes so over-the-top as to be comparable to the film 300. The game’s visceral approach to combat reinforces its violent atmosphere. Shank‘s grim vibe is further rounded out by its environments, which wrap decent albeit linear level design inside such dour backdrops as a sun-baked town and a literal city of brothels.
There is a rift between all of this violence and the art style that Klei uses to portray it. Though everything from the cutscenes to the character movements is well-animated, it’s a bit silly to see such a serious, gritty story play out in the style of a Saturday morning cartoon. Picture Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove flaying someone alive at the Dreadfort from Game of Thrones and it gives some idea of the dissonance this game’s art direction offers. It’s all well and good on a technical level, but a more mature art style might’ve suited Shank‘s theme better.
Shank is a cartoon that the kids probably shouldn’t watch, but that’s due as much to its narrative as its gore. Avenging the death of a loved one is hardly an unexplored topic in games, but Shank gives the trope unexpected depth. It’s unafraid to explore such taboo subject matter as rape, and in surprisingly blunt language. Shank also surprises as a character; he’s much softer-spoken and more thoughtful than his mindless killing implies. He’s aware of his many transgressions but is no less willing to commit them in pursuit of revenge. The character’s introspection breaks the revenge hero mold.
Of course, all of this depends on the version of Shank that players have. For some reason the PC version of this game is heavily censored; Klei edited out most mentions of Shank’s girlfriend (and thus his motivation for revenge) as well as a huge plot point that plays out at the end of the narrative. Why? Additionally, why did only the PC edition of Shank get this treatment while the console versions were left uncensored? Klei knows that PC refers to “personal computer” and not “politically correct”, right?
It’s unfortunate that Shank‘s full story doesn’t see the light of day on PC, but its fun beat ’em up gameplay thankfully remains untouched. It’s weird to review a game whose narrative quality depends on the platform it’s being played on, but… stranger things have happened. Either way, Shank is the game to play for gamers who love platformers and brawlers, and there’s even a small co-op campaign since it’s dangerous to go alone. Take a glance at the title and the gritty, well-designed combat that it has to offer.
You can buy Shank here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.