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Return of the side scroller

Return of a Lost Genre

It’s hard to name a decent side-scrolling beat-‘em-up without jumping back in time a couple of years to bring up classics such as Double Dragon and Streets of Rage. Klei Entertainment has evidently noticed the lack of decent modern day side-scrolling games and created Shank. Looking like an x-rated Disney film, Shank features a graphic style in between comic cel shading and grisly cartoon animation, which is not surprising considering the game is being animated by Jeff Agala, former director of the cartoon series Atomic Betty.

The gameplay draws heavy influence from Double Dragon (unsurprisingly), yet feels uncannily familiar to other games. At times, you’re reminded of Capcom’s Viewtiful Joe, as the camera zooms in and the combat slyly phases into slow motion to see you decimate a guy into a shroud of red mist as your chainsaw elegantly dances through his chest. The animation in this game really is breathtaking. One moment in particular sees you take a leaping disappearance into the air to re-appear on top of a bridge, but with Shank and the enemies appearing as silhouettes set against a golden sun; breathtaking. Your stats appear in the same way as they do in most side-scrolling games, with your health and lives at the top left of the screen, and the enemies health-bars appearing at the top right of the screen when they appear.

Brutality at it's Best

It’s satisfying to know that instead of being limited to a small proportion of melee weapons, Shank comes equipped with enough weapons to force The Merchant from Resident Evil 4 into early retirement. The kind of weapon you use relies heavily on what kind of combo you are trying to string together. Shank’s signature move is... well, shanking. This sees you effectively thrusting your dual shanks into an opponent’s chest over and over, but there are several variations on the way you execute the move. For example, one combo sees you whip out a chainsaw to thrust your enemy into the air with a follow up kick to the chest to send them flying backwards. Another combo sees you shank your enemy and then swing them into the ground backwards and forwards like some kind of ballistic ape. The type of combo you execute depends on the way you move your left analogue stick, much like the fighting system of many modern day beat-‘em-ups. The X button executes your melee attack, with your left thumb making the choice of which of many it will be. If close combat isn’t your thing however, you can reap destruction by relentlessly hammering away at the B button to turn your enemies into dust via a hail of pistol fire.

The great thing about Shank is that it doesn’t get repetitive; there really are that many different ways to kill your opponent. Whilst most side-scrolling beat-‘em-up’s are limited to a generic punch-punch-kick combo throughout, it’s the innovative moves such as forcing a grenade down someone’s throat, or kicking helpless henchmen into meat grinders that adds that beautifully gory breath of fresh air to the game. And yes, the game is effectively a beat-‘em-up but it also contains incredible moments of platforming genius. A particular thing that I found to be very effective is the way Shank effortlessly runs across walls by digging his blade into them for balance. Boss battles are introduced via comic cut scenes, emphasising the sheer strength and brutality of the enemy you are about to face. One boss who goes by the name of “The Butcher” tries to rip you a new one with his giant “meat hook” (take that as you will). The battle ends with Shank jumping onto the poor bastards back, and decapitating him with his own weapon.

The Best Things in Life come Cheap

Like many side-scrolling games, you venture through a variety of different locations. In one level you starting off in a desert, with cheesy western music been played in the background. You then go from jumping off wrecked buildings and swinging off rope to jumping over meat grinders and swinging off hanging pig carcasses. Lovely. Your akimbo pistols can also be used to gain further momentum by firing at the ground, making those long platform jumps that little bit easier to land.

The best thing about this game is that it’s going to be cheap, as it is available for purchase via Xbox live marketplace and PlayStation Network, costing (presumably) no more than 800-1200 Microsoft points. The way things are shaping up, the game is crying out for a cooperative mode, and it’s still too early to rule one out yet. I honestly don’t see how this game could get any better; it takes all the best parts from previous classics and draws them into one fantastic game. My only concern would be when the final version is released, it hopefully won’t have us pulling our hair out in frustration with the difficulty of the game; but challenges are always fun, aren’t they?