Is that 343 Guilty Spark in Knack’s chest?
Pegged as a PlayStation 4 launch title and directed by industry legend Mark Cerny, Knack carried with it some high expectations. Playing through it you can see the potential, but unfortunately the game just doesn’t put things together cohesively enough to be a “must own” for early PS4 adopters.
Part platformer, part beat ‘em up, Knack has a very simple setup. You punch and jump using the face buttons — multiple presses yield punching combos, double jumps and a mid-air attack. Dodging is handled with a flick of the right stick. You’ve got a trio of super attacks at your disposal, too, which are triggered by pressing circle and then following that with a secondary face button. You can also interact with or lift certain objects found in the environment.
Layout and implementation aren’t the issue here — it’s the responsiveness. In a game in which many of the enemies have multiple attacks and can evade, too, the ability to react on the fly is important. Instead, what we get to work with is a collection of commands riddled with brief hesitations. For example, you can’t chain dodges together and are forced to pause momentarily after each one. Needless to say that’s not good when you’re routinely fighting three or more baddies at a time.
Punch combinations cannot be interrupted, either. This leads to plenty of times when you absolutely know that the second and third blows aren’t going to land, and that your enemy is going to nail you with their own strike, but there’s nothing you can do about it. The semi-advanced enemy movements call out for quick-twitch reactions. Much to the game’s detriment, though, they don’t exist.
While not a bad looking title, Knack certainly doesn’t pack the visual punch of Shadow Fall, opting for a cutesy animated approach that looks as though it could’ve been pulled off on the PS3. Perhaps the lone exception to that designation is Knack himself. The way he absorbs relics and other environmental items to increase (and decrease) in size looks sharp, and his character is the game’s high point in terms of both design and execution.
Where things take a turn for the worse is with the fixed camera, which frequently changes throughout your adventure to present different angles and views. On one hand, it does help to mix up what is really some fairly repetitive gameplay — unfortunately, it does so at the expense of that gameplay. Many of the views create issues with depth perception, leading to cheap hits for enemies (and misses for you) as it’s often difficult to gauge distance. Another annoyance is for foes to attack from off the screen; this, too, happens far too often and comes across as a dirty trick.
There’s a lot to like on the audio side which features a well-orchestrated score accompanied by some solid voice work from the cast, which includes Ron Perlman as Knack (a choice that makes a lot more sense when you’re the gigantic version rather than the tiny one). The sound effects are good as well, and there’s something semi-hypnotic about the sunstone collection noise emanating from your controller.
Before we even broach the story, it’s important to know this: Knack is no cake walk. The cutesy graphics might suggest otherwise, but this game fashions itself as a throwback platformer that punishes mistakes with frequent deaths on the normal setting. Even with a forgiving checkpoint system in place, this game was not designed with younger gamers in mind.
Now then, the story of Knack is a simple one. You play as the game’s namesake, a variably-sized creature that can essentially merge with the planet’s power source, known as relics. You were brought into existence by a scientist referred to as “The Doctor,” and he enlists your abilities to investigate the recent rash of goblin attacks. While you try to ascertain where they’re getting their technology, Viktor, who begins as an ally, decides he must possess Knack for his own selfish reasons. The game evolves beyond that scope during its 13-chapter campaign, though it’s hardly a driving force.
As already touched upon, the game has platform and beat ‘em up elements at work. It’s a tried and true formula imbued with the interesting gimmick of being able to increase in size as you collect relics. The problem is that you have essentially no control over it. You’re big when the game needs you to be big and small when it needs you to be small. Instead of rewarding skilled play by relics adding to your size, Knack increases your size when it wants to.
It’s this heavily scripted feel that permeates every fiber of the game’s being. Levels are linear and all of your unique abilities are only available when it decides they should be, regardless of how little sense it makes. For example, Knack can bond with various elements (wood, ice, etc.) that act as a sort of shield while also bulking you up. On one level, we were able to grow exponentially thanks to the wood we found lying around. Shortly thereafter we were on another level full of wooden crates we could break, but they wouldn’t bond to us. Why not? Because it wasn’t predetermined by the game.
As you play you can find various parts in hidden areas, which when combined allow you to construct some helpful gadgets. These secondary items can allow you to collect more sunstones needed to pull off special moves, detect hidden alcoves or a number of other skills/boosts. A co-op feature is available as well. Here a second player can assist the primary — clearly, this was included so adults could help kids that like its look to play through it successfully.
There are fun moments in Knack, but they’re surrounded by a lot of mundane pummeling of the game’s enemies in various formations (two rocket guys and two sword guys, then one sword guy and a punching robot, and so on) for 10-plus hours. We couldn’t help but feel that the genesis of a good idea was here, and that the developers just didn’t quite know how far to push the envelope with it, which ultimately left behind the illusion of choice.
Consistently inconsistent, Knack never gets into a groove. There were many times we enjoyed the game, but there were also too many hand-wringing moments when a particularly cheap death or annoyingly conceived fight made us want to scream in frustration. Still, if you’re looking for something challenging to feed your PS4, you could do worse.