The most striking thing about the first Shank, an old-school 2D shoot-and-slash ‘em up for downloadable services, was how it looked. Smooth, crisp and downright beautiful 2D animation was the star of the show, but the way the game actually played left a little to be desired.
EA’s given developer Klei Entertainment a second chance to build on those beautiful and impressive visuals with Shank 2 – and the team appears to have managed to improve over the previous title in some areas, though others are left languishing as they were in the first title.
The cutscenes are pretty but the story leaves much to be desired
A mash-up of gaming tropes from the 90s arcade scene and over-the-top movies often starring hard-boiled Mexicans, the cast of the game rock around with chainsaws, machetes, guns and other such weaponry and, well – live up to the game’s namesake, shanking dudes.
The thing about brawlers like this and the titles like Double Dragon and Streets of Rage that spawned the genre is that they’re simple. It’s beautiful simplicity, great for lazy days when you don’t want too much concentration or co-op play – but that also limits exactly how far it can go.
The simplicity makes solid control and finesse over your actions all the more vital – an area where the first game failed. Thankfully, Shank 2 now comes packing controls much improved from its predecessor. Shank himself seems to now move as quickly and as gracefully as he animates, and the controls in general just make more sense, swapping about some buttons to make it easier to chain together brutal-looking kills on enemies without tying your thumbs into a knot.
That means picking up health is no longer on the same button as attack – a hugely wise decision – and there’s now an incredibly useful dodge mechanic that’s attached to the right stick. A flick in this direction or that will send Shank barrelling away and out of the range of enemies.
You’ll obviously find yourself mashing on the attack buttons fairly indiscriminately often, but it is a part of the genre and there is a level of depth to Shank 2’s gameplay that asks you to do more than that, like the best old-school brawlers.
The enemies themselves seem a little smarter and offer a decent amount of variation. Some are going to rush you to battle you close range, but others will be carrying ridiculously over-sized machine guns or lob grenades – and all of them will obviously be taken down quickest and easiest in different ways and by making full use of the newly improved, tighter controls.
The deployment of those enemies leaves something to be desired still, with level layouts that are hit-and-miss at best. The difficulty peaks and troughs in an uneven, frustrating manner, and it’s here that I began to realize that poor controls were probably only half of my problem with the original Shank – frustrating level design was clearly the other, and that is still present here.
The worst offender probably comes in the form of poorly implemented platforming sections. Shank is firmly a brawler – a beat ‘em up – and these platformer sections just did my head in more than anything. Lots of difficult enemies on screen at once is a sometimes frustrating challenge, but poor platforming is just that and nothing else.
Some of the difficulty spikes are eased by Shank’s new ability to pick up and use weapons dropped by offed enemies. This includes obvious stuff like baseball bats but also less obvious nods – including an actual kitchen sink. Each weapon performs differently, and using one of these over your pistols or machete or chainsaw can be a good way out of a frustrating situation.
Shank 2’s campaign is backed up by a story that’s just as forgettable as the average brawler, too, and even the super pretty artwork can’t salvage it. The art looks stunning in motion when guys are being stabbed to death in gameplay, but I honestly can barely recall any major story details – and that says a lot.
While co-op isn’t possible through the normal campaign a fully-featured co-op mode of its own is built into the title and requires two players on or offline to engage in something that’s sort of like a 2D version of ‘Horde Mode’ from Gears of War, which seems to be flooding everything from Saints Row: The Third to this.
Stab dudes! You get the idea
The two players can pick from three levels and have to protect weapon caches from increasingly difficult waves of enemies until they no longer can. Kills equal money and money leads to more, better guns and there’s a few different characters to choose from – but unfortunately this fun mode is simply too scant with only three levels to play it on.
It’s difficult not to admire the ethic of improving on the first game and it’s even more difficult still to not admire the beautiful 2D art that developer Klei Entertainment have created – which makes it unfortunate that Shank 2 simply doesn’t do enough to build on its predecessor. If you’re after an old-school brawler it’s definitely still worth your consideration – but absolutely keep in mind that this offers frustration as well as fun.