Hands-On Preview: Shank (PAX East)

If there’s anything I love to see combined, it’s flashy animation and gratuitous violence. Happy Tree Friends makes me giggle like a schoolgirl. There’s nothing quite like the juxtaposition of kid-friendly caricatures rife with color and oozing style, wacky personalities, and copious amounts of blood. Entrails do an animated character good. The upcoming 2D side-scrolling Xbox Live Arcade/PSN/PC title Shank, brought to us by the good fellows at Klei Entertainment, delivers all of this and more in full force. If Quentin Tarantino, Penny Arcade, and slasher film junkies had a meeting of the minds, they’d likely submit this game for our gaming pleasure. Forget the delicate worlds of Braid or P.B. Winterbottom. Shank is hardcore. And if you don’t believe it, he’s got a Head-On chainsaw — to be applied directly to your forehead.

This past weekend at PAX East I was given the opportunity to play through a short demo of Shank amidst a sea of my fellow gaming enthusiasts. As a member of the media I was allowed in a mere hour earlier than the rest, but that was enough time to get in and get my hands dirty.

The action got off to a rousing start as I was immediately thrown into battle at the beginning of the demo. A quick glance at the handy guide affixed to the corner of the LCD screen (and the advice of others) readied me for maximum carnage. Shank, apparently traversing a suburban landscape dotted with wooden crates, high-rises, and fencing drenched in a saffron sunrise hue, jogged along cool and confident. A high definition Rambo, red bandana on his head blowing in the breeze, muscles rippling and threatening to burst right out of his tight tee shirt and black slacks. Swoon. This man takes in oxygen and exhales badass. I ran along the beginning of the level, partaking in his confident swagger, until the likes of thugs known as “Brock” made the scene. I assumed this was the name of a type of enemy, as both men were identical. This aspect cemented the fact that Shank is indeed an homage to the 2D brawlers of yore. Yeah, you know you wasted hours on Sailor Moon R on the SNES. Don’t hate.

Shank’s melee option, rather than a predictable left hook to the jaw, revealed a revving chainsaw to the face. Me likey. And as if that weren’t enough to do some serious damage, another option was the dual pistols and a lunge forward as if every second was Shank’s last; real Matrix-styled bullet time, making an act of senseless murder seem much more fitting in that of a prestigious ballet. For a gruff adventurer-type, Shank has a certain grace about him that turns another me-too brawler into something much more polished.

Traversing the same type of scenery, I continued along after taking out the two Brocks. Not long after I happened upon more baddies just begging to be eviscerated. I began to alternate between my trusty chainsaw, dual pistols, and enemy-juggling, firing off my pistols in rapid succession as the unfortunate thug was riddled with holes in mid-air. I heard laughter around me as a grin crept across my face at the comical display. It was a pure adrenaline rush to tear across a rope bridge, through even more of the baddies, until I reached a bit of a wall. Literally. I was faced with an exercise in wall-jumping which panned out quite beautifully. Shank leapt gracefully up the wall, left, right, to the top. Then with my help he zipped along a rope bridge, taking a dive Wachowski Brothers-style, brawling with some Brocks and Donnies. As I reached the rope bridge, a gorgeous sunset effect took over, silhouetting the four of us and creating a totally epic, Wild West showdown feel. And I relished every moment. Moments like that remind me of just how happy I am that I’m a gamer.

Amidst the carnage, copious amounts of blood spray, and the carnal beauty of whipping out a chainsaw from nowhere and planting it into my adversary’s snarling face, I realized just how smooth and effortless controlling Shank really was. Moving throughout the demo level seemed natural, akin to the golden days of beat-’em-ups. Glorious. I breezed through many more Donnies and nondescript losers and finally reached the end of the level, where comic-book styled panels narrated just what I was getting myself into. El Toro, a snarling behemoth, waited for me with not-so open arms. I looked to my friends for support, questioning which previous strategies had worked againt this monstrosity. I was reminded I could use frag grenades. Simply approaching this beast would see that Shank was scooped up and thoroughly trounced, so a different approach was sorely needed. I resorted to darting around like a monkey, pistol-whipping Toro before he could charge, and then attempted to dodge out of his way so he’d run straight ahead into the wall in typical stupid boss fashion.

When good old Toro had crashed into the wall, it was my cue to run up and cue a quick time event via the right trigger on the 360 controller. Unfortunately, this is where the game hit a few snags. Though I was right near Toro, the majority of the time I would go to press the right trigger the game refused to respond. I attempted to change my position more than a few times, but mostly I was annoyed that even though Shank was standing right beside Toro (with a sliver of health left, no less), I couldn’t get the game to do what I wanted it to do. And in an age where games like God of War can seamlessly integrate my button presses to create a wholly vicious and mind-blowing encounter, simply wailing on Toro after the first few failed attempts just couldn’t measure up. And it was such a shame, after the rest of the demo had been so dazzling and full of retro brawleing comic paneled goodness. I chalked it up to the fact that it was, in fact, a demo, so hopefully these types of problems won’t persist in the final product.

Out of the plethora of games available for play at PAX East, I was thoroughly impressed with Shank. I made a mental note to purchase it as soon as it becomes available in the hopes that the finicky controls with Toro were improved. Its good, gory fun. And isn’t that all we’re asking for sometimes?

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