For novices, the most intimidating aspect of modern console gaming is the controller, that Gordian contraption with arcane inputs bursting from every surface. Even lifelong players fumble around a bit as they’re learning new games, hitting the wrong buttons more than they’d care to admit. But in Shank, a revenge-fueled fighting game where the title character shivs, shoots, and chainsaws through waves of attackers, there’s no such thing as a wrong button. Practically everything on the gamepad triggers some gorgeously animated brutality, whether it’s spraying a bordello with Uzi fire, or jamming a grenade down some thug’s gullet. Instead of a finicky gadget, the controller feels like a handheld playground, a place where thumbs are free to roam.
And yet Shank isn’t an anything-goes button-masher. It’s a reinvention of classic 2-D brawlers like Double Dragon and Final Fight, without the stiffness that characterized those earlier games. Every chunk of forward progress means confronting another wave of attackers, and tactics matter, especially in the worthwhile, checkpoint-free hard mode. A machete that dispenses death in one mêlée may prove useless in the next. This simple design choice nudges players to explore Shank’s repertoire of violence, unlocking new iterations on the game’s basic beat-’em-up thrills.
Each level is capped off with a pleasingly epic boss fight, as Shank confronts the gang leaders responsible for his girlfriend’s death, one by one. These showdowns would be even more interesting if Shank didn’t perpetuate an obnoxious trend in game design: overzealous help systems. When you die at a boss’ hands, the game tells you the proper strategy, killing the fun of figuring it out for yourself. Only the final boss’s “hint” is vague enough to leave anything to the imagination.
Over its playing time of about four hours (on normal difficulty), Shank comes close to overstaying its welcome. Battles can feel routine in the later stages, and the brief obstacle-course sections throughout the world are largely dispensable. Yet a captivating visual style—grindhouse by way of Adult Swim—and a prevailing sense of energetic camp are enough to carry the game through its thinner sections. In a form as creaky as the side-scrolling brawler, a vibrant work like Shank is a success.