by Chris Priestman
reviewed on X360
That Is So Last Decade
Give a man a knife and name him Shank, and you can expect the worse. Klei Entertainment’s latest game is a 2D side-scrolling brawler in the vein of the Rodriguez and Tarantino films. Amongst its many references to popular culture, Shank keeps retro gaming close to its heart. It tries to combine the addictive, simple design of Streets of Rage with the stunningly brutal slaughter of the Devil May Cry series. While an admirable goal, this raises the problem of balancing the tribute to the origins of a genre with making the game accessible to modern audiences –Shank is walking along the sharp end of a knife.
The Beauty And The Beast
Shank has such a prominent visual style that you will know you will want to play at just a glance. The artwork is headed by Klei’s Jeff Agala and boasts a smooth comic book look that can be seen in Klei’s two previous games. Take the best parts of any Rodriguez film and place them within a graphic comic book and you have visualized Shank. As you are slicing through enemies you won’t have much time to appreciate the scenery, but when you do you are left with your mouth open.
The backdrops range from golden sunsets to meat processing factories and neon city rooftops. Certain moments will stick in your mind when you are silhouetted against a stunning backdrop, highlighting the spectacle of one man fighting for revenge. Despite the frantic action of the foreground, the accompanying music is calm and consists mainly of a gentle strum of a guitar. As an obvious reference to El Mariachi, this subtle touch differentiates the game from the heavy guitar power chords of the typical brawler. It adds a kind of sophistication to the game comparable to watching a zombie film on mute whilst gently sipping on a glass of wine and listening to Beethoven. It comes together as an unusual but well-rounded experience.
The back story of the game is cloned rather than inspired by Kill Bill: protagonist betrays master’s commands, protagonist’s spouse is murdered, protagonist seeks revenge on all of his former assassin coworkers. It’s nothing original, but it worked for Tarantino, and as you work down the list of targets you will find a satisfied grin creeping across your face. As can be expected from a narrative that references so many stylish action films, the dialogue is (intentionally) entirely over the top and often mistakes mere expletive garbage for wit and sarcasm. Somehow though it works! The game knowingly leads itself through the very best and worst genre conventions, but does so with its tongue pressed hard against its cheek. Many of the references in the game are made very obvious, especially as you can play a variety of characters, from Bruce Lee to Jason Voorhees and Wolverine with the unlockable costumes. All of the post-modern hilarity embedded within the game is somewhat fitting for the revamp of a classic video game genre, and the fine balance of nostalgia and modern game mechanics makes it all acceptable.
Smooth, sophisticated and very fun to play, retro and modern is finely balanced.
Monotonous in long sittings, if played for too long you may turn into a braindead zombie.