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Where Shank's Boss Battles Went Wrong
by Nick Halme on 08/31/10 08:40:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Klei Entertainment's Shank is a good game.  I want to say that first.  It really is; I enjoyed it.  But it's such a good game that it was painful playing through it, noting all the things it did that stopped it from being a great game.

When I finished Shank I noted sardonically on Twitter that either nobody at Klei played the game, or they hate their players.  My core problem with the game, and primary source of frustration, are the boss fights.  I had a wonderful time with bosses in Noitu Love and Noitu Love 2 (games created by one artist/designer), and it was frightening that Shank's bosses were alien in comparison.

A good sidescroller boss is hard to execute, but the concept seems pretty simple.  Challenge the player's skills in a unique way, and have the player fight through stages.  

Noitu Love 2 had some great boss fights that had the player jumping around activating things, surviving barrages by dodging and then attacking weak spots, learning patterns, and skillfully attacking at the right times.  

Shank makes a cardinal mistake with all of its boss fights in punishing the player for fighting -- the boss fights seem far removed from the rest of the game and, counterproductively, are less fun.

A boss fight in Shank has the player avoid the boss until he enters a "I fucked up, and am vulnerable" state where the player will then press the right trigger to do damage.  Rinse and repeat.  Any attempt to use the game mechanics against a boss character produces punitive results.  I get the idea that bosses are supposed to be intimidating, but killing me for slicing, shooting, jumping, and grabbing against a boss in a game all about these things is a mistake.

The final boss battle had me doing a few strange things, and epitomizes the rest of the boss battles.  The fight is comprised of three stages, breaking up the boss's health bar.  The player is instructed that the thing to do is block at the right time to damage the boss.  

Problem number one: I never had to block much in the rest of the game, and the FX don't read very well.  I'm still not sure if I'm supposed to block at the moment of attack, or if holding block will work -- I spent an hour with that boss, and I couldn't tell which was working.

Problem number two: The natural way to beat the boss was to attack him and block when the opportunity arose.  I felt like I was playing the game wrong by using the game mechanics in a boss fight.

What I ended up doing was interesting.  After many failed attempts using block and being hit for massive damage in stage one of the fight, I started a war of attrition.  I would dodge quickly to the left and right of the boss, using my weakest melee attack - this helped since he would otherwise always block me, and would often launch his attacks on the side I wasn't on at the time.  

Any time I used a gun or a heavy melee attack I lost about a third of my health, so I stopped using that half of the game.  I proceeded to use my dodging trick and would mix it up by backing away and doing jumping slashes, or by throwing a grenade and then following up with a quick slash.  

I got it down to a couple minutes on the first stage.  Cue skippable cutscene that appears every time, and stage two.  The thing about stage two, is that it's stage one.  So I did the same thing there.  But either the boss gets a bit amped, or I would get a bit tired, and I would often die and have to start at stage one again.

An hour later I was at stage three, where I hit the boss in the corner and then hit him again, knocked him down, then kept hitting him.  I spent about twenty seconds or less on the final stage of the boss fight, which was followed by a cutscene made disappointing by an hour of rage.

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Tiago Costa
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I have to agree. I loved the game concept and graphics and of course general gameplay (I only payed the demo). But the boss battle in the demo, was a bit stupid, I ended up just slashing the boss two times and then running away from him, grabbing the wall and waiting for him to attack in order to jump down and repeat the process.

This was what kept me from buying the game, I was already convinced of buying this from the initial image to the start of the boss battle. Then it all went to hell and I was suspicious, still I would have bought it if not for a major failure from PSN that day that let me have the time to play the demo again and realize that the boss fight was just ridiculous...

Sam Cook
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I too only played the demo, and I also agree with the assessment for the first boss. I found it especially disappointing considering that there wasn't much strategy in defeating the other enemies; every attack was pretty effective. When the boss fight came, I was hoping to finally have a reason to vary my moves, but unfortunately was restricted to the one.

Sean Parton
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I largely agree with the assessment of the blog, but there is a secondary trick I found against the final boss: careful timing of shooting with pistols immediately canceled into a forward roll would have the boss shoot over the character's head, and not block for your impending attack. You have to be very careful with the spacing and timing of the attack, but it works.

I imagine the above tactic was not planned for, but it's emergent gameplay for those who really test the limits of the encounter.

Nick Halme
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Yeah that's interesting, there is a certain satisfaction to finding your own way to game the system. Personally I felt like, in this case, it was too tedious to be especially rewarding. It would have been fun to be able to take a lot of hits from the boss, with him having the same health bar, so it felt like a pitched fight. Maybe he goes into overdrive and only throw unblockables for a time here and there, and you have to evade -- but not for the whole fight.

Clinton Ma
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Nick, I just finished Shank and I feel your pain. In the game's defense, Cesar is simply the culmination of the "dodge/block on time, RT when vulnerable" formula foreshadowed with almost every preceding boss battle. He's just more epic because you have have 3 phases and 2 additional cut scenes to contend with every time you retry.

I can't think of any other brawler or action-adventure game that doesn't do this. Boss battle are not so much tests to gauge how well you've mastered the core play mechanics but rather palate cleansers to break up the repetitious nature of these games. Yes, you can think of them as puzzles even. For some reason, fighting these bosses in co-op was a lot more fun, probably because my friend and I could scold each other for messing up our timing or failing to revive one another in time.

One final thought. The "rocket jeep" boss is, in my opinion, the single most aggravating thing about this game. Don't get me wrong, I've really enjoyed Shank but I do loathe that boss and everything it represents. :)

Rik Newman
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Yeah as Clinton just said, this problem is fairly widespread. In particular I remember I had the same problem with Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2 - the boss battles I enjoyed were the ones where I could "fight normally" - although these were mostly the same ones that most people complained was too hard as there was no 'solution' to the puzzle to discover - you just had to fight well and know all your moves, timing, combos etc. The same thing generally applies to fighting games - many have very good 'boss battles' which do test your abilities at the main game systems, albeit sometimes with a bit of a twist.