Shank seemed primed to explode in popularity. Detailed animation, stylish carnage, and an honest attempt at innovating upon the 2D brawler genre all generated a ton of buzz when it debuted at PAX in 2009. A year later review scores were middling, that same fan base seemed to lose interest and, if you’re anything like me, you only played Shank because you bought it on sale for $3. It was all a little surprising; while Shank wasn’t a bad game, it just never seemed as cool or felt better than the first time you saw it in action.
The emergence of a sequel was relatively unexpected, but it turns out the folks at Klei have spent the past eighteen months doing their homework. Shank 2, while not entirely different, is a much stronger effort than its predecessor.
For one thing, it feels like more attention was given to the game’s pace. Throwing a steady stream of bad guys at the player for a few hours carries enormous potential for monotony, and has long been the Achilles’ heel of the genre. Shank 2 works to remedy that particular poison in a couple ways. The campaign is much shorter, turning in a respectable eight levels that last a total of maybe three hours. It also doesn’t pad (much), and does well to introduce new challenges and enemy types along the way. Over the course of Shank 2 I had to avoid a crane dropping stuff on me while I thrashed bad guys, stay in constant motion to avoid incoming missiles, run away from a huge bolder (in a clear homage to Temple of Doom), and manage a turret on a speed boat. Few of those sequences are particularly original in the 2D space, but considering they’re all part of the side show rather than the main attraction, Shank 2’s tricks are a bit easier to enjoy.
Combat has also seen significant refinement. Attacking guys in the original Shank had the tendency to feel kind of mushy, like you were playing a Flash game with awkward hit boxes. The sequel, as cliché as it is to say, feels much tighter and faster. I found the D-Pad to be much more effective than the analog stick, but on the whole Shank 2 made it easier to do what I actually wanted to do. Countering is another essential addition to combat, and while the animation isn’t detailed enough to clue in particular tells, the giant red exclamation point above an enemy’s head certainly is. Additionally, a dodge roll has been mapped to the right stick, which seems odd for a 2D game, but manages to feel comfortable quickly.
Shank 2 also makes much better use of its environment. Reducing those awful platforming sections to simple swing hooks and downward slides was a smart move, but a better one was blending character movement into combat placement. Placing snipers just out of reach necessitated a jumping shotgun blast at just the right angle, and transitioning that action into a rolling dodge, only to emerge in just the right spot for a heavy attack combo feels like a thing of beauty. Shank 2 is constantly trying to facilitate those kinds of instances, and while sometimes it can leave you on the business end of a machete, it usually errs on the side of earned empowerment.
In fact, the entirety of Shank 2 gets off on making the player feel like a total bad ass. This isn’t new, it was largely the mission of the original Shank as well, but great control goes a long way toward allowing the player to develop their particular skill set. I lost count of the times I got eviscerated in a sequence and then returned on my next life and completely wiped the floor without getting a scratch. There are only maybe a dozen enemy types, but once I remembered to dodge roll when the big guy charged, eliminate those bomb throwing shorties ASAP, and use the myriad of traps to perfection, combat seemed like more of an opportunity for a performance than an assignment for progression.
It’s a little weird that one of Shank 2’s best ideas winds up feeling like a missed opportunity. One of the eight chapters is handled by a different character, Carina. Her moves are all assigned to the same buttons, but her load out is completely different. I actually enjoyed her aesthetic and weapons more (and her combo counter with the scythe couldn’t be rivaled), but I was crushed when the next level loaded and I resumed control of the titular Shank.
That wasn’t the last I got to play as Corina, mind you, as the other side to Shank 2’s coin is a wave-based Survival Mode. It’s fairly simple; select one of twelve unlockable characters, pick your favorite load out, and defend a handful of points against an onslaught of enemies. A basic economy is built through killing guys and then spent on aids like health drinks and insane wolves, though the challenge manages to ramp up pretty quickly. All of that seems pretty standard, but Shank 2’s Survival Mode is more than an afterthought. Each character arrives with a particular set of bonuses (like being able to defuse bombs faster), and the architecture of each of the three stages positions traps and defense points with particular care and attention. Could it all be ignored? Sure, but you’d be missing out on a fun encore.
It’s worth mentioning that Survival Mode was probably meant to be played cooperatively. Shank 2, unlike its predecessor, lacks a true cooperative mode, but the ease of online play and the relative swiftness at which I’d get owned while playing by myself lead me to believe that Survival was a game made for two. If nothing else, a second player can better deal with defusing the bombs set on the defense points and can actually revive a player who would have otherwise been completely out of luck.
While the original Shank seemed a bit unsure how to resolve it’s bloodlust with a tangible plot, the sequel doesn’t really seem to care. Sure, there’s some underlying theme about freedom from a country overrun by a ruthless dictator, but the handful of mercifully brief cut scenes are usually in service of adding personality to a boss. You’re also treated to scenes featuring Shank literally ripping the jaws out of a shark, tearing a guy in half, and a host of other delightfully absurd power fantasies.