Even thought they didn’t win a prize at the Independent Games Festival, the developers of Shank had the luxury of being courted by some of the country’s best known publishers. But when you witness what they’ve done with this 2-D side-scrolling action platformer, it’s no accident that EA picked up the bloody little game. When you get your hands on Shank, you’ll see why there’s a buzz about it.
Shank will soon be a downloadable game from Microsoft’s Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network service. But from what I’ve seen, it plays bigger and better than your average DLC. As I indulged in the frantic, rancorous mayhem that is Shank, I felt like I was playing a more expensive console game. I got the same feeling last year while enjoying Chair’s Shadow Complex. Although Shank isn’t inspired by Super Metroid, it, like Shadow Complex, is inspired by two similar 24 carat ideas that make it stand out. Shank will remind you of classic games like Double Dragon and Fists of Rage. But it’s also informed by recent, artful pop culture like the gory-ness of Kill Bill, the tension of Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado and the wryly dark wit of The Addams Family (the cartoon). That’s why Klei Entertainment calls Shank a cinematic brawler.
One thing that couldn’t be verified in the demo is the quality of the writing. Because of the general chaos and around us, you couldn’t hear the sound. Assumably, it’s top notch, since fleshing out the story was taken on by Marianne Krawczyk, the same ubiquitous scribe who wrote the dramatic lines for God of War and Area-51. According to the developers at Klei Entertainment when the they met the writer at the 2009 Game Developers Conference, Krawczyk said what she really wanted to do was an indie game, not just for street cred, but for creative freedom’s sake.
Initially, the game was meant as focused, polished single player experience only. But fans kept requesting a co-op mode. And since Krawczyk dreamt up back stories for each of the quirky characters, Co-op was not something that had to be shoehorned in. In the Co-op campaign, you’ll learn much more about Shank and his over-the-top foes. Partners in crime Shank and Falcone encounter baddies who end up screwing then over in the main story line of the single player campaign. So the plot surrounds revenge full of weaponry, fisticuffs and just plain bile.
In Co-op mode, I felt I was inside a Triplets of Belleville meets Adult Swim carnival of angry adult souls. In a short cut scene, you meet The Butcher, who’s was supposed to throw a fight for our heroes, but didn’t. So Shank and Falcone are out for some butt-whompin’ retribution. I hadn’t yet played the main story, so the action and difficulty felt like it ramped up really speedily. The face buttons feature different weapons and mixing the buttons lets you string elegant combos together. You can grapple enemies with your shoulder buttons and then throw them, superhero style, across the screen. When you and your pal grab an enemy in tandem, you’ve done a supremely special Co-op move.
Additionally, you can pounce on an enemy and kick him down. Then you can chainsaw him into teeny pieces as blood bursts and drips to your satisfaction. When all else fails, you have grenades at your disposal via the L2 button. They were useful to loft up onto a ledge where enemies skulked. But I flubbed the grenade which exploded near me. So I hit the jump button twice, leapt onto Shank’s head and then got to the ledge to wreak havoc.
You’ll unlock a variety of weapons as you move through Co-op and pick up the weapons of enemies you defeat. With the two weapons I used, I could see that much thought went into the balance. For instance, the double pistols are great for shooting barrels while the shotgun is much slower and has a shorter range, great for clearing enemies as they swarm you. On the PS3 which was used for the demo, you just hold onto the square button to shoot.
As you move to the right and climb up a building, you’ll take a second to check out the backgrounds. Look down a street or alley, and the backgrounds seem deep and highly defined, almost enough to feel like you’re looking into a 3-D world. It’s a really thoughtful use of nine parallax layers during programming. And Co-op mode doesn’t seem tacked on to an admittedly short, six-hour single player campaign. Instead, it adds a certain crazy wildness that’s so engaging, you want to come back for more. The story in Co-op mode is unlike the single player portion and adds more value to a game that probably will cost around $15 (if past pricing on the two networks is any indication).
At the end of the level, we encountered a cartoon caricature of an enemy. The muscular Butcher was three or four times the size of Shank and Falcone. He constantly lofted barrels at us, Donkey Kong style, which we had to shoot. Because the barrel tossing Butcher seems to have the muscle of a gorilla and the cajones of Clint Eastwood, there’s no way that just one person could defeat this obscenely vitriolic monolith of boss-dom. I shot until my button pounding thumb was sore. As I took a moment to stretch the finger – bam – I was down, and Shank had to run over to give me health. Then, just as we thought The Butcher was going down – damn -- he recovered and the same thing happened to Shank. The developer kept screaming ‘R1, R1, R1, Press R1!” And I went, “Shoot! Circle, Circle, Circle!!! It got that intense because The Butcher was so unforgiving.
When it drops in late August, look for Shank to climb up the downloadable games chart because of its deft art style and homages to the classic games of yore. And prepare for some screaming at the screen during those co-op boss battles.