Old-School Beat-Em-Up Meets Stylish, Bloody Action Game
by Phil Kollar on May 26, 2010 at 11:15 AM
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Rating: Mature
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC

Shank is like the best parts of my childhood gaming memories and some of the indulgent conventions of modern titles mashed together in one colorful downloadable experience. It’s got the simple, beat-em-up gameplay of Double Dragon, but it also has the gory chainsaw-wielding action of Gears of War. The gameplay consists of simple 2D sidescrolling, but every once in a while you’ll be tasked with pulling off amazing-looking but easy-to-do acrobatics reminiscent of Prince of Persia. In the first hands-on time I’ve had with it, Shank deftly blends old-school and contemporary design in a simple, fun package. And it all begins with cartoons.

Canadian developer Klei Entertainment (pronounced clay) is headed up by Jeff Agala, an animator best-known for his work on Atomic Betty, a popular Canadian children’s cartoon. Though Shank is unrepentantly mature in its content, the art style sticks to what Agala knows best. This means that even as you’re slicing and shooting enemies to bloody pieces, the game looks a lot like something you might watch on the Cartoon Network.

Having an animator in charge also means that the game’s motion is one of its most stunning elements. The smoothness with which main character Shank switches between knifing enemies in the back to chainsawing to doing flips on a nearby pole is incredible. The gameplay may mostly consist of simple button-mashing, but being able to swiftly jump between different weapons and opponents leads to some stunning combos that will have you feeling like a bad-ass no matter how you press the buttons.

Klei smartly mixes up the straightforward combat with some brief platforming segments. Shank twirls around poles and makes death-defying leaps with ease. But again, even if it’s simple to pull off, it all adds to the feeling of being incredibly powerful that permeates every aspect of the game.

Boss battles also look like they’ll require a bit more than basic hacking and slashing. In the demo, I faced off against a bulky butcher (pictured above) with a giant hook wrapped in chains around his body. When I shot the slabs of meat hanging above the arena, the massive opponent would sink his hook into the dead animals by accident, giving me a brief opening to jump onto his back and whittle down his health bar. I was told that if you’re really good, this boss can be taken down by conventional attacks, giving skilled players a bonus challenge.

The one thing I don’t know much about yet is Shank's story. Who is Shank and why is he killing waves of gruff bad guys in the most gruesome ways possible? I don’t know, but we did find out a couple weeks ago that God of War series writer Marianne Krawczyk will be penning the story for this downloadable revenge tale.

Though the game’s visuals are inspired by golden age comics, Krawczyk says the story draws more from film: “We talked about John Woo, A Better Tomorrow, Man on Fire, [and] of course El Mariachi. We wanted a more cinematic experience for the story.” To this end, Krawczyk promises Shank will feature “a deep, rich, bloody story.”

Curiously, though Krawczyk has worked on all three of the big budget, smash hit God of War games, she says that some aspects of Shank’s development are easier than working on a bigger game.

“There’s always a cost issue,” Krawczyk explains. “In God of War 3, there were moments where I was like, ‘We have to have this shot.’ And the team would say, ‘To do that we’d need this whole list of things in production.’ And then they have to start making choices in terms of budget and what makes the cut. In Shank, we really didn’t have that problem at all. It was kind of hard to adjust to. I kept looking at Jeff [Agala], and I would ask, ‘Will we be able to do this?’ It freaks me out, because he always answered, ‘It’s not a problem.’ We didn’t have to think around production problems because it’s a 2D animated game.”

Hopefully that creative freedom gives Krawczyk and the team at Klei Entertainment the opportunity to make an engaging, entertaining story the likes of which we rarely see in downloadable titles. If not, though, I’ll settle for a blood-soaked quest for revenge with some of the most pure, old-school fun gameplay that I’ve experienced in a long time.