As 60,000 fans mill downstairs at PAX East, Jamie Cheng sits in a swanky hotel room, sporting a fedora and t-shirt combo that many gamers would envy. With an XBox controller in his hands, the 29-year-old doesn't look like a CEO of a gaming company -- indeed, the grin on his face betrays that this afternoon is just as much play as it is business.
"It feels good to use a chainsaw," Cheng says.
Yes. Yes, it does.
What he's talking about is Shank, the upcoming downloadable game for XBox Live Arcade, the Playstation Network and PC from Cheng's Klei Entertainment. "The story itself is a classic revenge story," Cheng said. Inspired by geek icons ranging from Sin City and Quentin Tarantino to Double Dragon and Streets of Rage, Shank is a comics-style "cinematic brawler" seen through the eyes of its titular beefy combatant, who wields guns, knives and the aforementioned chainsaw with equal aplomb.
On the floor of the Gaming Expo at PAX East, Shank's almost Venture Bros.-meets-Samurai-Jack-style art frequently drew crowds, who ran through a level hacking, slashing and shooting their way through way through a western-style vista, where anything from enemies to a flight of unlucky birds are fair game for bloodthirsty brawlers. Occasionally the stylized elements work their way into the gameplay, such as characters fighting silhouetted along a rickety bridge, which becomes reminiscent of anime such as Afro Samurai. Upstairs in Klei's makeshift headquarters, however, you're fighting through a dangerous slaughterhouse -- at one point, a quick flourish of the buttons gets Shank to grapple an enemy, then shove a grenade in the hapless guard's mouth, kicking him away before he explodes a crowd of bad guys. "Aw, yeah, that was good!" Cheng said with a laugh.
But why digital-only? "I think that theres a lot of reasons we went digital -- when I started the company in 2005, I wanted to do digital products because it gives us a lot more control," Cheng said. So when Klei eventually partnered with Electronic Arts for this game, it was more of a methodical, pragmatic choice, rather than a movement of necessity. "I don't have to worry about retail and distribution much -- i'm able to self publish and that offers us more options."
While in a lot of ways, the game's idiosyncratic sensibilities feels like the spiritual successor to the 1995 Sega classic Comix Zone. Well, in all ways but one. "Everybody remembers Comix Zone," Cheng said. "I was just playing it not too long ago -- man, it is hard!" With that in mind, Klei worked to make the game as intuitive for new gamers as possible. "We dealt a lot with the controls -- we use a lot of buttons, but at the same time, what buttons you have to use and what buttons are secondary what buttons people are going to learn over time," Cheng explained. "Face buttons are attacks -- you can just use those, and you can make it through just fine. And as you keep going, you can work in more and more combo attacks."
For example, new gamers can get by solely on the stab, shoot and chainsaw commands. But more experienced gamers can work in techniques such as grappling, pouncing and parrying. Of course, the enemies aren't slacking, either -- they get smarter as the levels progress, dodging attacks and ganging up on Shank, forcing players to rethink and retune their strategies. Yet the two boss battles seen for the demo are at least somewhat puzzle-based, such as using wall runs or shooting down background items to interfere with a bad guy's line of sight. This allows melee enthusiasts to slice away until they decide they want to use their environment to do in larger-than-life adversaries such as Toro and the Butcher.
"We're not trying to not be punishing...We want people to play our game and enjoy it and to enjoy the whole experience.once they start playing it," Cheng said. "They think, 'Wow I can actually do this.' "