Klei Entertainment takes on the side-scrolling beat-em up with Shank, managing to create something fresh and compelling from a genre that's grown old and stale.
What Is It? Shank taps the talent of Atomic Betty director Jeffrey Agala to create its striking graphic novel look and feel, but it takes more than a fresh coat of paint to freshen up the side-scrolling beat-em up. At its heart, that's what Shank is. Think Double Dragon. Think Fatal Fury. Then get your hands on the demo and think again.
What We Saw We played through a demo level of the game, taking control of the gritty hero Shank as he tears through a dusty desert town, taking down enemies with guns, knives, a shotgun, and a chainsaw until finally facing off against a massive boss. Though platforms have not been announced yet, we played on...well we played on a box with a Xbox 360 wired controller, a Dreamcast controller, and an Atari 2600 controller wired into it. We actually used the 360 controller to play, so the game would be right at home on Xbox Live Arcade.
How Far Along Is It? So far the game seems to be just the demo. Klei had no ETA on the Shank's release date, and wouldn't even commit to a target date. Another case of when it's finished.
What Needs Improvement? More More More: The only problem I had with the Shank demo was that it ended. Once it ended I poked around with some of the other options available to me, including a mode where you simply attacked three enemies over and over again in order to practice combos. I could have played that mode alone for an hour.
What Should Stay The Same? Combo System: This is where Shank towers above other games in the genre. The combo system allows players to switch smoothly between weapons in the middle of a fight in such a way that even the button masher can look like they are a professional player. Leap at your opponent, pinning him to the ground with your knives, firing off a few rounds from your pistols in order to keep approaching enemies at bay, and then bring your chainsaw down for the kill. You can even juggle opponents, smacking them away with the chainsaw and then rushing forward to catch them before they recover, keeping the combo going. It's so very fluid and satisfying, and that's just brushing the very tip of the combo iceberg.
Striking Art Style: It's like stepping into the pages of a graphic novel. Shank looks like a comic book, with cut scenes that help carry the illusion, seamlessly integrating into gameplay. The massive level boss jumps off the roof to confront you in the final cut scene, and then hits the ground in gameplay mode, ready for you to puzzle out how to take him down without becoming one of the blood smears left behind on the ground when you take out enemies. At one point - which Klei CEO Jamie Cheng admitted was his favourite moment in the demo - Shank comes across a bridge with setting sun behind it, he and his enemies becoming black silhouettes. It was a very Spaghetti Western sort of moment, and Cheng promises more of that time come.
Final Thoughts Playing Shank was one of the most entertaining moments I had at PAX 09, taking the simple, mindless fun of the beat-em up and polishing it to a stylish sheen that leaves me eager to see more as development progresses.