Shank is a very simple game with a very simple goal. There is no rescuing of princesses - or indeed, rescuing of anyone. There is no character development, or ancient conspiracy secretly running things behind the scenes. There are no friendly NPCs, no escort missions, or any sidequests. There are lots of people that you need to make dead because they stand between you and other people that you need to make dead.
It really is refreshing, in a way.
Everything about Shank is straightforward. Your goal is straightforward: Take revenge on the people who killed your girlfriend. The levels are straightforward: Keep on going to the right, murdering everyone in your path, fight a boss. The gameplay is straightforward, too: It's just you, your melee weapons, and your guns. Have at it - there aren't any powerups, super modes, or special moves to bother with, just a lot of enemies, and a lot of ways in which to murder them.
Shank's first claim to fame is that it looks really, really good. While it isn't the absolutely nicest sprite work we've ever seen, the smooth animation and slick visual stylization make it a treat to watch. There's just something very appealing about watching the eponymous Shank chainsaw people while backlit against a setting western sun, even if it does make it a bit hard to see what's going on at the time.
Shank plays as smoothly as it looks. The combo engine feels very fluid, and it's extremely satisfying to go from carving somebody's face up with your knives, to pouncing them, blowing their charging buddy away with a shotgun blast as you pin them to the ground, and chainsawing them into a bloody mess. Some weapons are theoretically better-suited for certain tasks than others, but players will likely find their favorite weapon set and stick with until the end of the game.
Even the platforming - secondary to the combat in the grand scheme of things - feels crystal-smooth. Shank runs up walls, across billboards and swings from skulls with nary more than a gentle guide from the player. With satisfying combat and entertaining movement under its belt (and wrestling with one's controller a rare occurrence), where could Shank go wrong?
The boss fights are a good place to start. Rather than letting players use the rich and satisfying combat they've grown used to, Shank's boss fights punish players for actually trying to attack the bosses - you will do next to no damage and almost certainly incur a devastating counter-attack in the process. Instead, you must trick the boss into injuring or incapacitating himself (by running into a wall or getting stuck on hanging meat), then initiate a mini-quick-time-event that deals massive damage to your foe. It's boring, it's run-of-the-mill, and it goes completely against all of the other rules that Shank lays down in the first place.
The game also has a tendency to put in nigh-impossible-to-avoid damage slightly more occasionally than is forgivable. In one particular occasion, the ceiling of a cave collapsed in on me right while I was making a jump - doing negligible damage, but knocking Shank to his doom. This happened dozens of times, no matter how many times I tried to mess with the timing, and by that point it ceases to be challenging and simply becomes frustrating.
Despite the lame boss fights and occasional pitfalls, Shank is a joy to play, and a joy to watch. It's only $15, too, which makes its 4-hour-length perfectly satisfactory - and it ends just before it starts to overstay its welcome. Could it do some things better? Absolutely. But for fans of the all-too-rare beat-em-up, it's a new-school spin on some old-school sensibilities that you'll probably enjoy every blood-soaked minute of.
Bottom Line: Slick combat and smooth platforming combined with great-looking spritework and a heavily stylized aesthetic make Shank an enjoyable modern take on one of the oldest-of-old-school genres. Occasionally frustrating moments and hugely disappointing boss fights aside, Shank is a treat for anyone who likes chainsawing bad guys in the face. Repeatedly.
Recommendation: At just $15, action fans could do a whole lot worse than Shank.
This review was based off of the PSN version of the game.
John Funk got the shotgun and never stopped using it.
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: August 24/25, 2010
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network (eventually PC)
Available from: Xbox.com, PSN