Review: Shank 2

Shank2

Side-scrolling games, once considered the golden age form of game design, were the mainstay on early consoles because of the limitations of hardware processing power.  But as hardware has become more advanced, game development has also advanced.  3D objects have replaced flat sprites and game worlds have become fully realized environments.  Many gamers, it seems, feel that a more traditional approach to game design, that of a 2D side-scroller, is a sign of either limited budget and therefore lacking quality or is below the standard set by so many modern titles since it lacks a first-person view of the world.

But what if a development studio took advantage of the power behind modern gaming consoles and designed highly detailed, lush backgrounds and fluid animations and multiple attacks for a character? Would a modern gamer be able to eschew the norms of game design and embrace a classically designed side-scroller?  Klei Entertainment set out to do just that and developed Shank in 2010.  While the first title was lauded by some, many reviews picked out shortcomings that kept the title from being a runaway hit.  The title character has returned for a second showing in Shank 2 and I found myself surprised by how much I grew to enjoy this release.

Playing a game outside of my comfort zone I think helps me appreciate what works and what doesn’t work for any title.  Genres I enjoy tend to fall in line with those of the general gaming populace — first-person shooters, third-person action, platformers, puzzle games and on rare occasion a sports title.  Side-scrolling brawlers (or any brawler/fighting game which requires rote memorization of combos for true success) are not my “go to” game of choice typically, but I will play pretty much any game to be able to say I have experienced what any given title has to offer. I had played the demo of the original game and found the art style to be amazing, but the controls were a bit beyond what my “twitch” reflexes could handle. So I dove into reviewing Shank 2 with slight trepidation.

The story of Klei’s sequel begins with Shank learning of a woman from his past being abducted by Magnus, “the President with a heart,” and so he embarks on a quest of redemption to rescue this damsel in distress.  Each level has a different theme, ranging from barrio slum, to cannibal filled jungle, to seaside resort, and typically fits the mold of battling through waves of enemies which run the gamut of light grunts with bats, all the way up to hulking armored brutes with flamethrowers. Not to mention some tough end boss baddies. Fortunately the game ramps up the difficulty slowly in each stage so that by the time a level was complete I felt like a complete badass, cutting through so many enemies that anyone could follow my character simply by the large trail of blood left in his wake.

For me the biggest hurdle in a game like Shank 2 is learning to effectively balance out attacking enemies, learning when to dodge and finding the best combination of weapons to use.  The single player story consists of eight levels and I found myself struggling with the first stage or two, but by the end of the third everything started to click and the next thing I realized I was clearing a level with only a handful of deaths.  The game is very responsive but is best (as with any true brawler) when patience is employed during each encounter.  Button mashing may allow a player to get through a section, but effectively using the combo system, juggling enemies in the air, grabbing and throwing enemies and learning to counter whenever possible, not only makes for a full on slaughter of blood, fire and screams of agony, but it also boosts your score.  Each level has a leaderboard ranking which helped motivate me to go back through several levels to increase my global ranking and attempt to best folks on my friend list who had achieved better scores.

Since each level takes place in a different area, the art styles and enemy types vary to match the scenery.  Some of the moments that stood out in particular include the cult leader boss fight at the end of the fourth level.  A bridge sequence in the 5th level reminded me of the silhouette art style from Frank Miller’s 300.  A final moment that highlights just how much of a badass Shank really is comes at the end of the third stage, when he completely rips the jaws off of a great white shark.  These moments may come across as a bit of a spoiler, but honestly anyone playing the game would likely come across all of these during their first play through anyway.  That is to say, this game is short.  However, even though the game runs a bit short, I never felt like I was missing out on any one thing.  The story is compact and delivered effectively without padding out the title with unnecessary repetition.

In addition to the campaign story, there is a survival mode.  Available in local and online co-op, survival mode is where the game really sucked me in.  I attempted to play locally with my son, but without him having played the campaign he didn’t understand the mechanics enough to allow for any worthwhile play time.  Fortunately, the online component offers a quick match system that identifies random players looking to play survival mode and brings players together without any lengthy delays in matchmaking.  

Survival mode offers three maps from different sections of the main story and pits players against waves of enemies, each one escalating in difficulty as more enemies are unleashed and attack with a greater variety of weapons and armor.  As the enemies are defeated, some drop money which gives players the chance to buy temporary upgrades, including things like health packs (in the form of tequila),  decoy peasants, gun turrets and other, more devastating handheld weapons.  Of course, no survival mode would be complete without a cameo wave of zombies, which the developers introduce by applying a flickering film grain over the entire screen.

Sure, the game may be a challenge initially for gamers not versed in fast paced side-scrolling brawlers, but Shank 2 does a fantastic job of easing players into an ever-growing difficulty level.  Visually, the game is amazing, a sort of cross between Samurai Jack and Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi cycle.  Fluid animations bring Shank’s attacks to life with a great sense of controller response for each button press or analog stick dodge.  While the story may not be particularly deep, the character motivations carry enough weight to give players a reason to care and play through to the end, with co-op survival providing additional replay motivation once the story runs its course.

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Pros:
+ Fun yet challenging combat
+ Beautiful visuals
+ Fantastic co-op Survival Mode

Cons:
– The combat can be difficult to initially grasp
– Single player campaign is short

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3 via PSN; also available for PC and Xbox 360 via XBLA
Publisher: EA
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Release Date: PC/PSN – 2/7/2012, XBLA – 2/8/2012
Genre: Action
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-2 (online and local co-op)
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.