Saturday, October 23, 2010

Reflections: Shank

Shank was first advertised as an up-and-coming game a few months ago(at E3 2010, I think), and I was immediately intrigued. It has a cartoon-style art direction and crisp, clean and fast movements. Smart platforming action and combat that demands clean maneuvering and quick reflexes looking to be part of this winning recipe, so I had been following this game for months up until its release.

Shank delivers. At 1200 Microsoft Points pretty much everything is overpriced, but Shank delivers; especially if one plays through on the unforgiving hard difficulty. The stages are either platforming levels or boss battles, and all are high-quality entertainment - all killer, no filler. While there are no levels that stand out as particularly memorable, this is more a testament to the consistently fun and challenging level design than a lack of jaw-dropping moments.

The game plays out like the side-scrolling action-platformers of the 16-bit and 32-bit eras of console gaming. Platforming includes dodging environmental hazards, bottomless pits, climbing, wall-running, swinging to and from appropriate ledges and other feats of acrobatics. The feel is very much like that of a two-dimensional take on the Prince of Persia games from a few years ago. All movements are very smooth and intuitive, and regularly-placed checkpoints ensure that the more challenging platforming sequences are minimally frustrating.

Shank's combat is very fast and smooth. A variety of enemies keep things fresh and challenging as they implement a variety of tactics and weapons to dispose of their renegade nemesis. All the modern brawling mechanics are here: weak and strong attacks, alternate weapons, ranged weapons, grappling and dodging. Some may consider Shank's lack of inventive mechanics a shortcoming, I must address that what is present is very intuitive, and very user-friendly. Every challenge can be overcome with nimble maneuvers and quick wits, and every death is the player's own fault (save for just a few sequences that involve random explosives raining from the sky).

The boss battles are definitely a standout feature for Shank. The boss battles again pay tribute to the platformers of old, as they follow the model of memorizing a pattern, reacting to telegraphed attacks, and survival. Every boss features a unique moveset, which is actually surprising considering the quantity of boss battles present in the game. Every boss is challenging, and "cheap" kills are kept to a minimum - Ninja Gaiden this isn't.

If Shank has any one feature that will separate it from the crowd, that feature is its visuals. A cartoon with intense colors and thick outlines reminiscent of some old cartoon-network programs like Dexter's Lab and Samurai Jack are the style of Shank. Even the gloomier, warehouse-style levels are booming with saturated colors, and demand your immediate attention. Also, all the characters, from the standard enemies to the bosses all have unique appearances. A handful of character models for each class of enemy prevent the screen from filling with clones, and this variety makes the game that much more visually appealing. Shank moves about the environments with ninja-like finesse, and the manners in which the player can dispose of foes are range from standard brutality to "DID YOU SEE THAT??!" awesome gorefests.

For those who are so enthralled with Shank's style and playability, such as myself, Hard mode offers the same exact game with amplified damage, more enemies, and NO CHECKPOINTS. That's right, die and start at the beginning of the level. Thankfully, (and mercifully) boss battles count as separate stages. Whew....

Shank is a great change of pace in a generation that floods the market with shooters. It's crisp visuals are a stark contrast to the post-apocalypse trend, and it's fluid gameplay is a throwback to our younger days, but it still includes some mechanics unique to this era. At 1200 Microsoft Points, it's a bit steep, but watch for this one on sale. It deserves your attention, and you deserve to play it.

Shank gets a B lettergrade.

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