There’s a chapter in PS4 platformer Knack titled ‘back to basics’. It’s ironic, really, as that’s a phrase that actually relates to the game in general in many, many ways. While console launch games rarely excel at innovation and originality, Knack is disappointingly uninspired in its design, presentation and mechanics. While the gameplay is great fun at times, and playable at its worst, there’s no ignoring that this is a mediocre PS1 era platform title dressed up to look like a PS4 game.
You play as Knack, a golem made up of ancient ‘relics’, thousands of which litter the world in which you play. It’s an odd world; invented extremely linearly, narrative-wise. Which means that each location you visit, more than I’ve ever played in a game, feels like a specific world created just to further the narrative and provide a slightly new visual design. It’s a world that feels a little lifeless from the start. In an age of gaming where titles like GTA and Skyrim present vibrant, diverse and truly alive locales, it can feel heavily restrictive to play a game that does little to flesh out the world in which you play. There are goblins, relics, and a few boring characters (even a teeny bit of history at some points), but little to properly engage the player.
I suppose though, platform games rarely attempt to create a vibrant world, especially very linear games like Knack. Any recent Mario title all but proves that a modern game doesn’t need to have engaging plot to provide a brilliant experience. In reality, Knack often seems to be stuck between the simple narrative of games like Super Mario World and the linear, but excellent tale told in Uncharted 2. Knack, you see, was created by the Doctor (whose name is never actually revealed, even by his lover) into a human world threatened by various goblin clans. With the discovery of a secret door, as well as a painfully obvious double-cross, the story begins in earnest and sets Knack and his folks on an adventure around the ‘world’.
It’s a serviceable story, and as I mentioned it’s more than anything you’ll find in a Mario game, but the painfully blunt writing style and obvious plot lines prevent it from actually being any good. Uncharted is familiar, for sure, but it certainly doesn’t lack in character. Knack, on the other hand, is filled to the brim with boring, stereotypical and poorly voiced characters who are unlikely to make an impression on kids, let alone adult players. In a modern world where children’s TV programmes include Adventure Time, Phineas & Ferb and Spongebob, it seems a little insulting that SCE Japan think that these lifeless characters are enough to earn the interest of younger gamers.
Of course, as with any platform game, the story is just a means to punch things in the face, and on this front Knack provides by the bucket load. The game follows an old style with levels comprising of various rooms in which you have to kill all the enemies to remove the barrier to progress. Unlike many of the classic PlayStation platform games, there’s a certain lack of variety in the combat mechanic. The square button will get a workout, that much is for certain. Other than this standard attack, a jump attack and a few special moves, combat comes down to timing rather than any kind of strategy. Often, it’s best to just charge the enemies before they get a chance to start their attack pattern. The combat does feature a pleasing sense of weight, and punching enemies can be richly rewarding given the right circumstances.
The enemies themselves are actually one of my favourite elements of Knack; from armoured goblins to giant spiral-golem-things, there’s a lot of variety. The ‘globetrotting’ story does provide plenty of new enemy types to admire, learn, and pulverise. They’re all brilliantly animated and fit in perfectly with the often beautiful art style (more on this later). In a game that’s so heavily focused on fighting groups of enemies within small areas, it’s a good job that the combat mechanic and enemies can actually provide satisfying gameplay. As with any platformer, it can be frustrating at times, but Knack is at its best when you’re free to take on enemies of various types at will.
The successes of the simple, but fun, combat are sadly hindered by a checkpoint system that must’ve been designed by the Devil himself. Perhaps, in an age of frequent Call of Duty style checkpoints, I’ve become a tad accustomed to easier games, but there’s a difference between difficult and idiotic checkpointing. There are many, many points during the game in which you’ll have to continuously play through several easy segments just to get to the one tricky bit that you’ve been failing on for the last half hour. It makes those easier parts feel like painful, often futile, slogs. More regular checkpoints would have been ideal, especially before the taxing segments of the game. On the normal difficulty this issue is irritating, on hard it’s down-right game breaking.
Still, if you’re good enough to avoid death then you can probably have a fairly pleasant time playing through Knack. It’s certainly at its best when you can plough through the goblin ranks without having to track back ten minutes. Of course, this isn’t simply a blueprint of famous platform games like Jak & Daxter or Spyro, it does have some ideas of its own. Most (almost all) of these revolve aroundKnack’s ability to absorb the relics that form the backbone of the game’s plot. By fusing with increasing numbers of relics, Knack can greatly increase his physical size. Going from a tiny little Knack who takes a few punches to kill deadly insects to a huge version of him who can take out large groups of men in one punch is hugely pleasing. There’s also a good balance of play between tiny Knack and giant Knack, as well his various forms in between.
The only real downside is that the player has very little control over when these changes are made and to what degree. For the most part, the game tightly controls when Knack grows and shrinks, which often feels like a missed trick. Obviously, in such a linear game it would have been beyond tricky to design a system that allows the player to choose Knack’s size while maintaining the difficulty level. Still, the forced changes can be a pain at times. Overall though, it’s a good system, and the small segments that mix it up (such as infusing Knack with ice or wood) are fun to play. Unfortunately it’s one of the only elements of the game that makes it stand out from the aforementioned PS1 and PS2 games, other than this, Knack is just a bad copy.
If you’re going to copy some of the best platform games in history, then you obviously need to include some extra features that aim to extend the life cycle of the game. While the 12-15 hour story mode is a fair length for a game of this sort, SCE Japan have also thrown in the standard array of collectables. Interestingly, the collectables are mostly parts of gadgets that grant Knack some kind of in-game boost. Advantages like gaining an extra special attack, more powerful punches and a ‘not as cool as it sounds’ vampire ability can all be unlocked this way. There are a fair few extra abilities, so many in fact that it’s unlikely you’ll find all the parts for one gadget in one playthrough. That’s your incentive to play at least once more; that, and the hard difficulty mode which more than lives up to its name.
The hard mode can be a little more negotiable with a friend alongside you. SCE Japan have barely mentioned that Knack includes local co-op, and it’s a real shame. A second player can jump in and out of the game at any time, playing as a metal Knack who can deal damage just like the original. It’s a brilliant feature that bests many of the greatest of platforming titles. The frustration of the checkpoint system is a little easier to bear when you’ve got a friend to calm you down. As well as co-op story mode, a second player can also join you in the coliseum and time attack modes that are unlocked upon completion of the game. These are the familiar arena modes that pit the player against waves of attackers and they’re good for a little more formulaic fun.
It all comes together to form a gameplay package that feels incredible dated, but still unavoidably fun. The game also looks brilliant. The art style is likely to turn a lot of people away, but it does have a certain charm that’ll remind many of the current Disney animation style, all big eyes and exaggerated features. It’s not exactly a graphically powerful game, I doubt it pushes the PS4 very hard and could probably run fairly similarly on a PS3, but makes up for this with some interesting locales brimming with character. Deep into the story mode the locations start to feel recycled, but they still maintain their impressive cartoony looks. Visually, Knack is a tad divisive, but I enjoyed the easygoing art style and smooth animation.
Knack has left me a little confused. While at times the game is awkward, annoying, uninspired, and even boring, it also manages to be fun, beautiful and rewarding at others. In the end though, if the question is would I recommend this game, the answer would probably be no. The local co-op is a great addition but not enough to sell the game (let alone a new console), while the gameplay is so old-fashioned you might as well dig out the PS1 and play Crash Bandicoot instead. This is a valiant effort at restoring the glory days of platform gaming, but in the end it just feels horribly dated, more so considering its place as a next-gen launch title.
Knack has left me a little confused. While at times the game is awkward, annoying, uninspired, and even boring, it also manages to be fun, beautiful and rewarding at others. In the end though, if the question is would I recommend this game, the answer would probably be no. The local co-op is a great addition but not enough to sell the game (let alone a new console), while the gameplay is so old-fashioned you might as well dig out the PS1 and play Crash Bandicoot instead.