Fight to save the only living person who still cares about you.
PC Release: February 7, 2012
By Ian Coppock
Side-scrolling beat ’em ups have gone out with a dang in recent years. It used to be that arcades could draw hordes of teenagers with the promise of great titles that espoused only two things: running to the right and beating up hordes of foes. The genre has made much more sporadic appearances since arcades’ heyday, with Guacamelee! and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game being two of the few popular such releases in recent years. The other series in this vein, Shank, gave re-popularizing the side-scrolling beat ’em up another attempt with 2012’s Shank 2.
Shank 2 hit stores about two years after Shank and, like its predecessor, was developed by the Canadian studio Klei. Like Shank, Shank 2 is a side-scrolling fighting game in which players assail hordes of anonymous foes with fists, knives, and pretty much whatever else happens to be within arm’s reach. The title’s design hearkens to the golden age of such games in everything from its simple storyline to its mechanics, while also improving upon Shank.
Shank 2 is set not long after Shank, in which the protagonist (whose name is also Shank) took out a bunch of underworld bad guys for daring to assassinate his girlfriend. Having fulfilled his quest for vengeance, Shank decides to take a bus back to his hometown and reunite with Elena, the woman who raised him as though she were his actual son. Though Shank’s homeland is better for being rid of the cartel, the military has stepped into the resulting power vacuum and declared martial law. Shank 2 begins when one such patrol of troops stops Shank’s bus on the outskirts of town.
As his name implies, Shank has no problem dealing out violence at the slightest provocation; when a soldier takes his tequila, he responds by murdering the entire patrol. He makes it home in time for another round and unexpectedly reunites with Corina, a childhood friend who now leads a resistance movement against the military. Shank couldn’t care less who runs things as long as he gets his booze, but gets pulled into the rebellion after Elena gets abducted by the villainous General Magnus.
Unwilling to let Elena, the only person who cared for his well-being as a child, get carted off to a fate worse than death, Shank gets his knives (yes, knives, because this the sequel and therefore the protagonist wields two weapons) out and sets about doing the thing he does best: stabbing, shooting, and bloodily murdering his way through a literal army of foes. Though Corina is Shank’s buddy in this fight, the roguish ex-hitman spends most of the game fighting alone.
Shank 2 starts the party by borrowing a lot of Shank‘s gameplay; as Shank, players can engage enemies in combat with a wide variety of melee weapons or take out foes from afar with an arsenal of guns. Shank’s speed with knives is unmatched, but a larger, heavier weapon like a chainsaw deals much more damage. As players race to save Elena, they can unlock new and more powerful weaponry for taking out Magnus’s soldiers. Guns are great for keeping large foes at bay or for killing enemies who are perched out of reach, while grenades and molotov cocktails make effective impromptu fireworks.
From there, Shank 2 makes a few changes and refinements over its predecessor’s handiwork. Players can now only pick their weapons at the start of each mission, which makes the game more challenging at the expense of the fun that came with switching weapons on the fly in Shank. Most weapons hit about as hard as or harder than they did in Shank; the shotgun, hilariously, remains brutally OP. It beats back entire crowds of foes and reduces the reckless among them to a bloody pulp. Shank can also pick up objects in the environment, like boards and pipes, and use them as weapons.
The enemies in Shank 2 are only marginally less stupid than the foes in Shank; both groups seem content to charge mindlessly into the whirlwind of knives and gunfire that is Shank. Shank 2‘s bad guys are a bit tougher, and the game does away with displaying enemy health like its predecessor did to keep players guessing how many more hits a bad guy can take. Unlike in Shank, enemies in Shank 2 are defined more by what they’re packing than their physical size (though players can still count on fighting plenty of freakishly huge dudes).
Players can also encounter a wider variety of enemies than in Shank, which gives the game more variety and keeps the hero wondering who’s around the next corner. Sure, Shank spends the bulk of Shank 2 fighting rank-and-file soldiers, but also goes up against primitive cannibals, greedy smugglers, and maybe even a witch or two during his journey to save Elena. Players can take these foes on solo, but they can also buddy up against the bad guys with Shank 2‘s co-op mode. Player twos can play as Corina, who has her own roster of weapons and a faster fighting style, but there’s also a whole slew of other characters for both players to pick from. Choose wisely.
Shank 2‘s refinements to its predecessor’s gameplay result in a smooth experience (one that’s best played with a gamepad), with fluidity and speed that make for one hell of a fighting game. The platforming is tight thanks to well-placed paths and territorial elevation, while Shank immediately responds to controls and can execute complicated moves with a few simple button presses. Shank 2‘s system performance is as agile as its protagonist, even if its options menu leaves a lot to be desired.
Though Shank 2‘s gameplay improvements are impressive, more impressive still is the game’s incorporation of environmental kills. Players can now take advantage of their surroundings to get the drop on foes, releasing cargo onto unsuspecting enemies or using machinery to creative (and bloody) ends. Whether it’s springing traps or starting fires, Shank has no problem turning a building full of enemies into a flaming death trap. Opportunities for environmental kills are plentiful, and creative players will take great joy in executing them.
Shank 2‘s environmental improvements go beyond great platforming and unorthodox murder opportunities. The game’s artwork represents a significant refinement over that of Shank, with hand-painted environments that look more detailed than those of the first game even as they look more dour. Shank 2‘s character animations are fantastic whether the player character is charging through bad guys or simply taking in the view. Shank 2‘s aesthetic also benefits from dramatic weather effects and much more varied environments than those of Shank.
The result of all of these artistic game changes is a world ripe for exploration. Shank 2 encompasses a dour dystopia that wouldn’t look out of place in, say, Nancy Farmer’s House of the Scorpion novel. The game artfully blends Hispanic influences with grim industrial themes to promulgate a grim atmosphere. These motifs also result in great level variety; players will spend one mission cutting through a jungle graveyard and the next fighting in an aging seaport.
The only facet of Shank 2‘s level design that hasn’t evolved gracefully is the storytelling. Unlike Shank, the PC version of Shank 2 does not feature a heavily censored narrative, but what little story there is is told at a breakneck pace. Shank’s transitions from one level to another are usually poorly explained; there’s one scene where Corina interrogates a random soldier for the location of the next level when she could’ve done that to any of the dozens she’d just slaughtered. Sometimes the dialogue is drowned out by other audio; a symptom of careless sound design.
Additionally, Shank’s fight to save Elena doesn’t carry the emotional weight found in Shank‘s revenge tale. Part of that might have to do with the titular character feeling like a different person. He’s rewritten to be an unthinking killer instead of a remorseful one and has a new voice actor. Both of these things make the character feel like an antecedent to the man in the first game, and thus Shank 2 feels more like a prequel than a sequel. There’s not much to be said of the game’s other characters; Corina is the stereotypical fearless freedom fighter and Magnus the scheming overlord.
Fortunately for Shank 2, most brawler fans will have too much fun with its gameplay to care about its glaring plot flaws. Story problems notwithstanding, the game represents a sizable improvement over Shank and is a title that platforming and brawler enthusiasts should try. A hypothetical Shank 3—a title that introduces more improvements and gives this character the full, uncensored story he deserves—might be what side scrolling beat ’em ups need to fully reclaim the glory they enjoyed in their arcade days. Until that day comes, though, fans of the genre should try Shank 2.
You can buy Shank 2 here.
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