If there's one kind of video game that we should be seeing more of, it's beat-em-ups. The advent of downloadable game services like Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, and PSN mean that classic genres can come back in new form, and games like Castle Crashers and Capcom's successful side-scroller releases have shown that the market's here. Klei Entertainment's Shank is a scrolling beat-em-up in the style of action movies like Robert Rodriguez's Desperado, but it's also written by Marianne Krawczyk who wrote all of the God of War games, so there's some resemblance there as well. The art, action, and style are definitely a breath of fresh air when it comes to downloadable games.
Shank starts off as a pretty standard "rescue the girl" story, but the main character doesn't screw around with basic punches and kicks. He's going for the gut, the throat, the eyes, and his signature weapons, a pair of knives, show that off perfectly. He's also got some guns and a bigger melee weapon strapped to his back and he can swing and fire them in mid-combo at any time, and as you go through the game you'll gain new secondary weapons and can switch between them with a tap on the D-pad. You'll need them all, too, because your enemies will gang up on you, throw combos, block your attacks, and smash through your pitiful defenses if you let them.
This is an M-rated game - something that you don't find often in this genre - so we're talking lots of blood and really brutal-looking combos. Everything's hand-drawn, including the backgrounds and all character animations, and the dusty Mexican city theme really makes for an interesting setting that we don't see often in video games. Unfortunately, the M rating extends to the cutscenes, and the adult content in these just doesn't really add anything to the experience. It also very clumsily tries to put rape into the story, and it's kind of off-putting, even for a guy like me who loves blood and violence in games. I get that they were trying to do a grown-up version of the classic "save the girl" story, but the way rape is handled in the cutscenes is just distasteful.
The Shank story takes place primarily in single player mode, but there is an alternate backstory mode that you can play cooperatively with two people on one console. It's shorter, but it does offer the same great action and fun. Still, I feel like the developers have missed a huge opportunity here to integrate everything together into a single game with fully-playable cooperative play (either on the same screen or over Xbox Live) for two, and it's frustrating because we've already seen other hand-drawn brawlers like Castle Crashers achieve it.
But what Crashers doesn't have is the flair of a good 1990s action movie, and that's where Shank delivers. By mixing up his attacks and combos, you can put together an amazing sequence of death-dealing maneuvers up close, at range, and finishing it all off with a high-flying dive with a pair of knives right in some poor guy's skull. Sometimes the action is just a little disjointed, though, and I feel like the controls serve up just the slightest lag that makes things a little awkward. It's also strange that the button to pick up items is the one that you do your main fast attack with, and that can get annoying when you accidentally pick up a health vial or weapon instead of hitting the guy right in front of you.
Another small disappointment would have to be the price; at 1200 points/$15, it's priced similarly to what I believe to be more long-lasting downloadable games, including the aforementioned Castle Crashers, Shadow Complex, Braid, and the just-released Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Still, the art, design, and action go at least some of the way towards making this game worth your money, so if you've blasted your way through all of those and are yearning for more, then you should definitely check out the Shank demo on XBLA or PSN.