Review: Shank

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Klei is far and away my favorite developer just for the majesty that is Invisible Inc, but they have a plenty impressive catalog outside of that. Shank goes way back to their early days as their second title, and while it carries their distinct style it definitely feels like a sophomore effort. I love a good beat-em-up and Shank is packed to the brim with blood and combos, but it makes a few of the common mistakes that games of the genre often do.

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Have you seen Desperado? Good, you know the plot to Shank. Dead lady, three henchmen, one big bad. Your headlining character comes armed with knives, pistols, grenades, and a chainsaw to work his way through streets and rooftops full of thugs. There’s a bit of climbing and swinging between fights but the bulk of your time is going to be spent comboing mooks to death and chugging 40s to get your health back.

Keeping enemies corralled while you hack them to bits is key here, because Shank is a full 2D beat-em-up with no Z-axis movement. Your foes are a diverse bunch, with spry stick fighters, machete-wielding psychos, gun-totting troopers, lumbering brawlers straight out of Fist of the North Star, and more. The further you get in the more the groups are mixed, causing plenty of chaos and headaches when you have to manage melee, ranged, and explosive threats.

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Early on the slick combo system provides an easy hook for the game. Everything you do combos beautifully, no matter how you mash your light, heavy, and gun attacks. If you can turn that button-mashing into strategy you should be able to hang with the game pretty well, but by the time you get on the third minion’s trail the challenge starts to get a little bullshitty. There’s more than one sequence with random explosives raining down on you, and a major late-game street brawl has four waves of foes capped with a minigunner who can easily stunlock you to death.

You have plenty of tools besides just your three attacks, including two kinds of grapples and some very useful grenades. While mixing things up can help you get out of unfavorable brawls, it won’t help you much against the bosses. Each big bad has a gimmick that must be exploited to beat them, unless you want to whittle their health down a sliver at a time. It’s not always obvious what you should do but dying once will pop up a tip straight-up explaining the gimmick, which is a heavy-handed but effective way to address the difficulty.

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There’s a lot of combat in this game over the two to three hours it’ll take to beat, so minor aggravations can easily weigh Shank down. Even with all the enemy types it gets repetitive after awhile, playing out across sprawling, linear levels with no secrets or items to find. If you’re just here to kill people, though, you’ll get plenty of that in lavish comic book style. The game’s cutscenes are a highlight, rendered like everything else in Klei’s signature look, though the voice acting lacks the impact to really sell the scenes. Overall Shank is a bloody good time that drags in a few places but gives you more than enough action to make up for it.

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