Shank, the new downloadable title from the Vancouver-based Klei Entertainment, almost makes God of War seem subtle. Like Kratos, the titular Shank is a walking tribute to over-the-top violence with a surprisingly complex arsenal of moves that belies his impossibly blunt demeanor, and given the popularity of God of War, that’s neither a criticism nor, in all likelihood, a coincidence.
At its core, Shank is an old school 2D brawler that upgrades feet and fists into handguns and a chainsaw before the end of the opening cut scene. Those tools have a predictable impact on the action. If you haven’t chain-sawed someone in the face within the first five minutes of gameplay, you’re doing something wrong.
The story is a straightforward vehicle designed to justify your antisocial behavior. You play as Shank, a betrayed and presumed dead former gangster seeking revenge against the evil dudes that also killed his girlfriend.
The cartoonish carnage is fun, but it’s the rock-solid combat that makes Shank such a strong title. The gameplay is fantastic, offering a fast-paced combination of melee strikes, dodging, grappling, and gunplay, and it’s all so incredibly well balanced that none of the elements are ever seriously neglected. Chaining moves together is relatively intuitive, and the game rewards a sound understanding of the mechanics.
To that end, Shank will put your survival skills to the test. There’s virtually no downtime amidst all of the relentless murder, so any group of enemies can kill you if you’re not careful. Shank provides a real challenge, and while the game is seldom frustrating – checkpoints are liberal on the normal setting – you will have to know what you’re doing if you’re hoping to move forward.
The deep combat – along with the separate cooperative campaign co-starring Shank and his loyal pal Falcone – even makes Shank’s brief four-hour runtime largely forgivable. The game is simply fun to play, and since encounters rarely play out the same way twice, you won’t be bored during your second play through.
The overall aesthetic presentation matches the high design standards of the fighting. Shank looks and sounds amazing with colorful, vibrant visuals and a soundtrack that perfectly sets the mood for the gangster/western saga. God of War scribe Marianne Krawczyk’s writing is similarly superb. Shank’s bloody tale unfolds through a series of comically memorable and badass one-liners that are all essential to the narrative, and that’s a rarity in gaming.
On a less enthusiastic note, it’s worth mentioning that some people have reported stuttering issues during the cut scenes on the Xbox 360. I played the PS3 version, so I didn’t notice any technical concerns beyond an excessive number of loading screens, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re considering a purchase.
Aside from that, however, there’s just not much to criticize. From health restoring beer bottles to boss battles against leather-clad gimps, Shank is a fun game with a distinct style and exceptional attention to detail. It may be violent popcorn entertainment, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth your time.