Knack was the first game to be announced during the PS4 reveal event in February, and as it happens, the game is also written and directed by the lead architect of the console hardware, Mark Cerny. Don’t let that credential make you think Cerny’s a hardware guy merely trying his hand at software though as he’s has been involved with some of PlayStation’s biggest game. From Crash and Spyro, to Resistance and Uncharted; he’s no newcomer to the game development field. In promoting Knack, the development team regularly made reference to earlier PlayStation titles, describing the game as Crash Bandicoot with Katamari Damacy elements. So, with this pedigree and marketing you might think you know what to expect; Running, jumping, collecting, that kind of thing? At least, that is the impression I got prior to release, however, playing the game first-hand was an entirely different story.
I found myself disappointed and frustrated with Knack almost immediately. In fact, I could find no resemblance to the games it was described as taking inspiration from, and subsequently, felt that it was more similar to the likes of God of War than anything in the vein of Crash or Spyro. I found myself getting impatient with the repetitive gameplay, dying a lot and repeating parts of the game over and over. Simply put, I wasn’t having fun. However, for some strange reason, Knack grew on me. Whether I got better at the game, started to understand the style of combat, or just found enjoyment in the colourful setting, I ended up having much more fun with the game than I expected in the first few chapters. Knack is disappointing, but it still wouldn’t be fair to consider it a bad game.
When a human city is attacked by goblins wielding clubs, bows, and strangely enough, tanks; retaliation is deemed necessary. I’m not sure why this role would be filled by volunteers rather than some kind of military, but amongst a voluntary army is The Doctor and his greatest creation, Knack. It isn’t made clear what kind of doctor this man is, but he’s clearly proficient enough in his field for his title to replace his name entirely (Though his actual name is written in the credits, strangely enough). Knack, on the other hand, is a sentient pile of floating, magical relics. Knack and The Doctor are joined by Lucas, The Doctor’s young assistant; Ryder, Lucas’ adventurer uncle; and Katrina and Viktor, a couple of clearly shady folks based on their purple clothes and the letter K in their names.
To be honest, I found the plot to be surprisingly dynamic, and while every twist is projected hours before it happens, the fact that they happen at all still keeps things interesting. The evolving motivations of the characters display more depth than I expected of the title, too. Knack practically alternates between telling two different stories. It would have been just as easy to have told one arc of the story after the other, but I appreciated the intermingling of the two. This approach kept me invested, and the back-and-forth style of storytelling was paced as such that it was never disruptive to the narrative. The characters themselves have fairly exaggerated personalities but remain mostly one dimensional. They’re the type of characters you might see in a Saturday morning cartoon – hell, Ryder is practically a human version of Launchpad from Duck Tales. It would have been great for these skeletons of characters to have grown to be funny, likable, or in any way interesting. Unfortunately, the inconsistent quality of the writing and voice acting disallowed this. I found that both Ryder and Lucas were well written and acted, but the same can’t be said for the rest of the cast. It’s disappointing to go from a natural, superbly performed conversation between Lucas and Ryder to a mediocre scene featuring Knack or The Doctor.
The titular character dialogue in particular is a huge let down if just for the fact that it exists. The visual design of Knack presents such an endearing, interesting character, but that is definitely not how I felt about him whenever he spoke. The thing that annoys me is that Knack speaks with a low, ‘cool guy’ voice, and says stupid, ‘cool guy’ stuff. To be fair, I couldn’t think of any kind of voice that would suit the character, but to be even fairer, I see no reason why he needed one. Knack goes from little and cute, to monstrous and intimidating; both of which are well portrayed in their design, but detracted from by his generic ‘hero voice’. Knack could have been a unique, cute, endearing, funny, interesting character. He wasn’t. Knack was a poorly acted, uninteresting, cliche, ‘cool guy’.
As I mentioned earlier, Knack shares a lot with the God of War series. The two main components of the game are fighting enemies to remove a barrier, and subsequently, moving forward to face the next group of enemies. It’s not what you’d expect from Knack. From the outside looking in its easy to assume the game plays like a Mario, or a Banjo-Kazooie. Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, not so much. So as you’d expect, practically all of Knack’s gameplay is combat. When you’re not fighting, you’re generally walking down a narrow path, jumping down small ledges, jumping up small ledges, or watching cut-scenes of Knack jumping up or down small ledges. Not the most exciting. Sometimes you’ll climb, which controls terribly as Knack sluggishly moves up a wall that you’ll wish didn’t exist. Rarely, you’ll get to direct a floating Knack across fans holding him in the air. These segments could have been interesting if they were expanded upon, but sadly were not. In fact, any variation would have been welcome.
At times, Knack will absorb things other than relics into his body. Crystals, icicles, wood, and metal pieces of Knack have interesting implications on the gameplay. Stealth Knack can sneak passed security beams; Abominable Knack is strong, but melts in the sun; Wooden Knack can catch on fire and Metal Knack needs to avoid magnets. These segments provide simple environmental puzzles that are sorely underused, and it’s something I was expecting a lot more of. However, these forms are only ever used in isolation to each other, which essentially means that there is no choice and as such removes any opportunity for the player to think creatively during play. It’s not a matter of experimenting with materials and finding something that security beams don’t detect, it’s a matter of the game having you play as Stealth Knack in any situation you’ll come across security beams. I would have loved to have been able to absorb pieces of the environment as I see fit, and experiment with how I could use them to my advantage. It would have been an ambitious project, but it would have resulted in fresh, interesting gameplay; opposed to the stale repetition Knack has become most notable for. Admittedly, two other modes and a co-op option are available, but ultimately feel tacked on, and add nothing substantial to the game.
The collectible system in Knack is worth discussing too, partially for its interesting social aspect, but mostly for its annoyances. All of the hidden items, apart from two or three exceptions, are hidden behind breakable walls. Spot and destroy one of these walls, and you’ll find a chest containing a randomized item. Items can either be gadget parts or special relics. Collect every part of a gadget, and it’s yours to use. Collect enough of a certain type of special relic and you’ll unlock a new form of Knack. Each time you find a treasure chest you’ll see what treasure you find in it, every person on your friends list who has found the same chest, and what each of them found in it. You then have your choice of the treasure you found or something one of your friends was lucky enough to receive. It’s an interesting social integration, but at the same time, actively contradicts the idea of treasure being randomized. On top of this, there is a lot more treasure than there are chests. This means multiple playthroughs are required to collect everything, and you could potentially be unlucky enough to never complete a gadget or a relic set in a playthrough, even if you’re finding every chest. It’s not only annoying, but feels exploitative. It’s an unfair encouragement to play the game again, when what you receive is entirely based on luck. There is a chapter select option, but don’t think you’ll use it to find the treasure you missed, sadly, they cannot be collected this way.
If it’s not clear by now, Knack is very limited in what it offers, and as such, players will essentially repeat the same actions over and over until the credits roll. Admittedly, the combat is strangely unique in its mechanics and can even be entertaining at times. However, the way the enemies move and think, and your limited means of attack result in very simple; precision based encounters. Thus, when looking at it from this perspective, I can actually see a resemblance to the old Crash and Spyro model; you have one attack button, and no combos beyond mashing the same button. Pressing the main button after jumping executes a Sonic style homing attack, and you also have access to 3 different special attacks, which at the cost of a collected Sunstone, will clear the screen of enemies, while moving the right stick in any given direction will make Knack evade. There really isn’t much depth here in terms of remembering combos or working on different techniques, but it can still be quite fun, and surprisingly rewarding. Having such a simple base for combat means that evading and landing attacks can become very meticulous and precise. Without the coating of multiple attacks, combos, and the like, the combat is very raw and clear. Whether you win or lose, you can clearly trace what you did, or failed to do, and what gave you that result.
With that being said, enemy diversity isn’t huge, but it’s still extensive enough. Enemies will swing weapons, charge forward, shoot projectiles, and drop harmful substances on the ground, and whilst most enemies only take two or three hits to defeat, Knack can usually be shattered in even less. This means patience is rewarded, and rushing in headfirst will nearly always result in failure. It can be extremely frustrating, especially when you’re not used to the style of combat, but after dying over and over enough times, I learned that I’d only be able to move forward if I stopped rushing. Knack’s movement and attacks control well, the combat is an interesting combination of modern and traditional action gameplay, and it can be a lot of fun if you let it grow on you. There’s not much to it, and you’ll be repeating the little that there is over and over, but it certainly doesn’t play badly.
Honestly, the world of Knack is a pretty one. Bright green grass, sterile laboratories, colourful enemies, and a whole lot of detailed cliff faces are presented with a vibrant style. Just about everything looks good, but nothing in particular stands out as being great. Though there’s a fair bit of diversity in locations, each place you visit seems to be constructed of the same limited pieces. Essentially, what I mean by this is that when you first reach a new area in the game, you might be impressed by how interesting the environment looks, however, by the time you leave the said area, you will have seen the same trees, puddles, doors, or buildings to the point of exhaustion. Anything that seemed impressive on its own would have been repeated to the point that it loses all interest.
While the animation itself can be quite good; as evident with the way characters express themselves and talk believably, and the way enemies will attack and evade; I found the lack of attention to detail to be distracting. Right at the start of the game, you reach a point where enemies are supposedly jumping into the area to fight you. This is terribly masked, and it’s clear they’re spawning above and falling to the floor. More pertinently though, goblins, one of the main enemy types, have no death animation. Whether the choice for fallen enemies’ carcasses to disappear was made to optimise performance, or if piles of bodies were deemed too gruesome for a family game, fading away is an outdated method for getting rid of an asset. Other enemy types have reasonable, family friendly animations upon defeat; exploding into dust, teleporting away, crumbling into rocks – cartoony stuff
Apart from repetition and a lack of focus on minutia, the visual presentation was solid, and at points, really good. I found myself enjoying the soundtrack too. It doesn’t offer anything that’s likely to stick with you, but it’s a collection of suitable, traditional adventure game style songs. Knack won’t show off the PS4’s capabilities as well as most of the other launch titles, but it surprised me at times with beautiful vistas and emotive characters.
Knack is a game built on a unique premise with a lot of promise, but the possibilities it inherently implies are never delivered in the final product. Growing and shrinking is entertaining, but the player never has a choice. Absorbing materials into Knack’s body is intriguing, and yet, it’s only ever done restrictively. The bareback approach to combat is something fresh and interesting, but after the game forces you to take part over and over again, it becomes stale. The concept of Knack is such a fantastic idea, and if they were to make a sequel with any kind of player choice in regards to absorbing materials, growing, and shrinking, I would likely be keen to play it. As it is though, Knack is just an adequate game that might be worth your attention if you’re just looking for something to kill time with on your PS4. If you come in with low expectations as I did, it may actually surprise you.