I love grindhouse cinema. More specifically, I love Machete; Robert Rodreiguez's bombastic ode to the grindhouse movies of yesteryear, starring ol' scarface Danny Trejo in the titular role of the multi-blade wielding avenger on a quest to bring to justice (in a most OTT violent manner) those who have double-crossed him.
Shank for all intents and purposes is the closest we're ever going to get to Machete in digital, playable form. Styled in the fashion of an unholy union between Penny Arcade and Machete, wearing its Grindhouse influences proudly on its bloody, torn sleeves, Shank is a side-scrolling shooter/slasher with a focus on vivid comic book visuals and violent melee combat.
Somehow utlising growling as some sort of vernacular for conversation and gutting folk when he isn't trying to 'converse' with them, the story follows the Grindhouse template pretty closely, with our hero, named after the weapon with which he intends to use to dispatch his foes with no less, forced onto a path of violence to gain a measure of revenge against the cartel who murdered his girlfriend. Supplementing the single-player campaign, there is also a local co-operative multiplayer mode which narratively takes the form of a prequel. In this mode, one player is cast as Shank and another as the hitman Falcone, as they slash and kill their way through bad guys to the events that shape that single-player story.
With the exception of special team-up moves that can be executed in the multiplayer campaign, the gameplay remains largely identical between both modes though, as enemies rush our hero from the right side of the screen and come in all different shapes, sizes and annoyances. Some foes are straightforward melee types, some are ranged firearms users while others are massive juggernaut-esque characters which charge at Shank and can generally fuck him up pretty badly if you aren't on the ball. Endearingly, much like Final Fight and Streets of Rage, each baddie has his or her own energy bar and little portrait, so you can keep track of just how much punishment is left to give on your chosen foe before they give up the ghost.
Speaking of ghosts, in no other case in this game are you more likely to die than if you're surrounded. Should Shank find himself in this situation; surrounded by a mountain of enemies, which is possible since anywhere from one to roughly fifteen foes can attack the player at any one time, he can use a finite number of hand-grenades to cause massive area of effect damage and generally disperse the local bad-guy populace in spectacular fashion.
Trust me; you will come to treasure those bouncing green hurt lockers. Oh yes.
In subscribing to the side-scrolling template, big-ass boss fights are also present and accounted for too. Unfortunately, unless you're a masochist playing it on the hardest difficulty, pretty much all of them can be easily beaten on a first or second try once you've nailed down the timing of avoid their attacks and counter striking effectively.
Sometimes taking a break from the gorgeously rendered butchery, the game does let the player indulge in some platforming - with the occasional wall climb, spot of chasm leaping or swinging from hook points usually involved. It never however amounts to anything remotely approaching taxing; making the platforming mechanics within the game come across as superfluous and just, well, a bit on the shit side really.
No, where the appeal lies with Shank is in its unremittingly stylish comic-book depiction of Grindhouse violence. With a chainsaw strapped to his back and shank in hand, Shank can grapple and disembowel foes with due aplomb and unmatched viciousness. In addition to this, he can also do a 'pounce' move (something that has saved my bacon on more than one occasion), where he leaps through the air and homes in on a target, at which point he lands on them pinning them to the ground where a number of rather violent things can take place.
From this position, our grizzled, growling lead can not only gleefully stab the foe beneath him or plunge his chainsaw into the soft bits of the poor guy, he can also keep the chap pinned to the ground whilst he frees a hand to blast any other enemies who might be trying to close the distance with his trusty pistol.
Shank is not just restricted to his starting dual-shooters and chainsaw either. Our hero can violently innovate with a number of ranged and melee weapons including shotguns, Uzi submachine guns, katanas and chain-wrapped fists.
The actual usefulness of these different tools of bad-guy butchery is pretty much a mixed bag though sadly. The shotgun for example, is very effective in blowing enemies across the screen; creating much-needed separation in the process, while the pitter-patter of the Uzi on the other hand, seemingly does little other than piss off whoever it happens to be aimed at with its laughably insignificant damage and tiny ammo clip.
The selection of melee equipment also suffers from weapons that are just gimped enough that you would only use them once to see their comically violent animations and never use them again. The fist-chain being an instance of this; in which the weapon itself has such a short-range that the long-range allure of the Katana (a must-use weapon for a couple of the boss-fights) proves pretty much irresistible and more often than not, downright essential.
Indeed in some ways, Shank plays in a similar fashion to how you would imagine a 2D rendition of Devil May Cry would; in that Shank is able to mix up firearm and melee based combinations to great effect - including an attack where he knocks an enemy up into the air with his melee weapon and proceeds to prop them up in mid-air with a barrage of dispensed twin-pistol ammo.
It doesn't hurt that it all looks supremely stylish too. I'm not just referring to the vividly rendered cut-scenes either - since that same retina-pleasing visual style carried seamlessly into the game.
With its sumptuously rendered character models, smooth-as-butter animations, gorgeously realised backdrops and liberal use of silhouetting to elicit a pleasing, if shamelessly inspired style that pays suitable homage to its Grindhouse leanings, Shank remains a visual treat throughout.
Clocking in at just under five hours for the whole thing though, co-operative multiplayer campaign included, Shank is a game that short of offering any real variety, instead relies on the player just wanting more and more of the same - more violent cartoony death, more pulp-Tarantino-esque bad guys and more crappily implemented platform mechanics. If this floats your boat then and you're willing to take 2 out of 3 for up to five hours, then by all means, give a Shank a go; you'll find a beautiful looking comic-book side-scroller with Grindhouse leanings that has a lot of violent spectacle to share.
Mr Rodreiguez would approve I’m sure.