Game Review: Shank 2

In a nameless, war-torn Latin American country, a group of brutal state militia pull over a bus and start waving guns and knives at the frightened people aboard. One approaches a solitary, hulking figure in back who has failed to evacuate the vehicle. The soldier draws a bead with his gun, and promptly loses his hand at the wrist.

This is the opening of the first level of Shank 2. By the end of it, Shank, the main playable character, will have gutted a hundred or more anonymous soldiers, using only a pair of machetes, an endless supply of throwing knives, and a pair of smaller, shiv-like blades. In the glow of the burning enemy base, the bus driver returns, and asks the blood-covered figure if he is part of the rebellion. “What rebellion?”

Yep. Don’t look for deep story here, though the melodrama in this 2-D brawler does have a way of sucking you in. This is a melee version of Metal Slug or Contra, with the violence ratcheted up a couple notches, and the battle system a bit deeper and more challenging. This is the game for the adolescent boy in all of us, and it fills him with glee.

The gameplay includes three main attack buttons, a quick blade attack good for starting off combos, a heavy attack (which varies between selected weapons: machetes, chainsaws, or a sword, for example), and a ranged attack (throwing knives; pistols). Besides this, Shank can grab and throw, pounce, take hostages, juggle enemies in the air.

Boss fights hold to the same core gameplay style but are sufficiently unique to keep things interesting. On the second or third level, I felt briefly overwhelmed by the number of different moves (a rolling attack I thought was oddly placed on the R3 analog stick). Every single button has an assigned function, and more than once I’ve thrown a grenade (R1) when I meant to pounce (R2).

Keeping track of so many unique moves and still managing to perform combos takes a bit of practice. I wouldn’t mind seeing the options slimmed down just a little bit, but I appreciate the potential for better and more advanced techniques for anyone who wants to put the time in.

I also appreciate the near-seamless integration of cut-scenes with gameplay. Each boss fight will allow for one super-attack (with a custom cut-scene) when you do enough damage. But it still feels like part of the fight; the damage bar still stays on-screen.

It’s mindless, gory, over-the-top fun. Way more to it and way more fun than I expected for a 10 dollar download title. If you’re into this sort of thing, I’d say it’s worth a look.

Article first published as PlayStation Network Review: Shank 2 on Blogcritics.

Game Review: Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2

The 21st century is a wonderful time to be a gamer. Online gaming has become standard with console releases; Japanese titles that would have once been deemed culturally untranslatable now routinely make their way to our shores. This latter is arguably a mixed blessing, however.

I’ve previously covered two games from NIS America (the acronym standing for Nippon Ichi Software), both sequels. Prinny 2 I found to be old-school platforming fun, and the story and humour, while very Japanese, also very funny. Cladun X2 was dungeon-crawling fun — to a point. Both had an exceptionally high learning curve, which I was willing to persevere against in Prinny but not in Cladun.

Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 is also a sequel, also from NIS America, also full of Japanese gaming/manga/anime tropes and general weirdness. The title sequence has still hand-drawn images of all of the main characters in magical girl poses that are bizarrely at odds with the revealing outfits they are wearing (black leather bikinis and other lingerie). These outfits thankfully don’t feature very much in the actual game.

It does feature the girls, though. In fact, there are no male characters in the game whatsoever, excepting sexually indeterminate dragons, rats, and other monsters. Our heroes are mostly CPU candidates, living in a world called Gamindustri and featuring magical guardian “mascots” that look like game discs.

The world is divided into nations that are essentially stand-ins for Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft’s current-generation consoles (plus one for the never-produced Sega Neptune). A clever conceit and probably the most interesting thing about the game, though there’s not much satire of the real-life corporate entities, or if there was, it went over my head.

I wondered whether NIS’ inability to take themselves seriously might be a problem with an RPG, where story matters. But of course, their wildly successful Disgaea series has already shown that RPGs don’t actually have to be sombre and serious. Of course, they do have to be entertaining, which requires a certain degree of sense and witty dialogue.

Where to draw this line is at least somewhat a matter of personal taste. The fact that the first game was popular enough to merit a sequel, and the existence of a limited edition version of this game which runs for several hundred dollars may answer that question, at least for a certain contingent of hard-core fans.

So why not get right to the gameplay?

Besides the usual HP (hit points), registering the health of a character, action in battle is determined by AP and SP. AP is used up each turn for attacking, using items, special moves, and simply moving. SP is used up in special moves and in regular attacks (which involve three different types of button combinations), but only when a combo is initiated. Attacking enemies will slowly build SP back up, while AP is only refreshed after time has passed.

SP is essentially your magic points (or specialty points) while AP is like your action bar or timer. The system is strictly turn-based, but movement is free, defined each turn by the radius of a circle.

This seems logical but digitalizing basic actions along with both magic and health made it difficult for me to keep track of everything and plan strategically. Frankly, I rarely knew when I was held back from performing a certain action because I needed to attack to build up my SP, or if I had to end my turn without attacking so that my AP would carry over.

Just as the simplest actions were needlessly complicated, true depth was lacking. For the first few hours battles were basically hack and slash. The challenge level then began to rise as boss HP rose along with damage dealt, but there wasn’t a whole lot you could do about that but a) power-level and find rare equipment, or b) spend half an hour or more slowly shaving off a boss’ life while constantly healing and hoping he doesn’t unleash a super-attack.

In one sense this is extremely classic game design, complete with the high-rising difficulty, but on the other hand, haven’t improvements to role-playing game mechanics accrued over the last couple of decades? The general strategic uselessness of available support magic and special attacks compared to simple power-levelling had me wishing for more balance.

For me, NIS games have shined for their gameplay rather than creating an emotional connection to the story. Though I had some fun with it in a killing-time sort of way, my lack of real engagement with the battle system made it difficult for me to keep pushing through as the challenge level really started to ramp up.

You probably know if what I’ve described is the sort of thing you’re into, but if you’re not sure and haven’t played the original, you might want to rent it first.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 on Blogcritics.