It all sounded so promising. A platformer from Mark Cerny, the man behind not only two of the most memorable genre mascots – Crash Bandicoot and Spyro – but also the main architect behind the PlayStation 4 itself. A match made in heaven, surely?! Not quite.
Knack is the other half of the abruptly truncated pair of exclusive Sony offerings (Driveclub pushed back until 2014), ushering in the PlayStation 4. As with its angrier, more violent older brother Killzone: Shadow Fall, Knack has the hard job of convincing players that only the superior processing might of the PlayStation 4 can handle its mighty polygon counts and vast worlds. It’s also the start of a new generation, perhaps the best time to introduce a potential mascot to define the console and launch a franchise. Knack, with his cutesy button-face and family-friendly demeanour would be an ideal role-model… if he wasn’t so bland and forgettable.
Set in a world resembling a Dreamworks CG film, Knack is a sentient being constructed from relics, a jumble of blocks that are mined for their technological usefulness. Electricity seems to exist in this world, although most mechanical devices are powered by these relics. It’s not worth thinking about, really. Anyway, an esteemed Professor (or Doctor – they’re interchangeable) discovers Knack when, some years later, human settlements come under attack from evil goblin forces who have suddenly developed tanks and aircraft. They destroy cities, terrorise civilians and pilfer any relics they can get their hands on, but to what end? Therein lies the question and one of the muddiest, unengaging plots to a game. Allegiances change, there are patently signposted twists and some wonderfully animated cutscenes but the plot lacks any subtlety or resonance. One spoilerific event is dismissed within the space of a level and there’s a lack of emotional range – never mind the rise in jeopardy or some devastating occurrences, the general tone of child-friendly positivity continues, often to surreal effect. The world’s about to end, eh? What a jolly adventure!
Of course, it can’t be gritty and hardcore – this is a game for kids. Well, given the Dark Souls level of difficulty you’d be forgiven for thinking differently. Ostensibly, the majority of gameplay sees Knack clomp about environments, hitting enemies until they die and occasionally solving a basic puzzle. Health is determined by the amount of relics that comprise his body – the more relics, the longer his health bar. On normal difficulty Knack can withstand two to three hits (or one, if it’s a charged-hit) before he crumbles into bits, each relic scattering across the floor. Enemies increase in size and power as Knack does meaning there are precious few moments where Knack feels dominant – even at his largest incarnation he can still be brought down by a few hits. This is all well and good for hardcore gamers but, given this is a game marketed towards kids and families, the difficulty is just incredibly brutal. It doesn’t help that checkpoints are infuriating at times, sparse as they are. Saving after each fight would be appropriate for Knack – instead, you often have to redo three or four battles before a short cutscene indicates a new checkpoint reached.
It doesn’t help that the environments are unimaginative and prone to repetition. Most of the game alternates between similar locations – mine, laboratory, cave, test facility, volcano, secret base – that reuse art assets and look almost identical. It’s also dreadfully linear, one giant corridor with exploration reduced to punching adjoining walls in a half-hearted attempt to reveal hidden chambers. There’s no sense of wonder, of exploring a new world, of unearthing untold treasures. It’s all so bland and… safe.
The game is marketed with the glittering promise of a gargantuan Knack, smashing through cities and generally being a badass. In reality, most of the game is spent increasing in size through each chapter before being knocked down to puny, voiceless Knack who can barely take on a spider, let alone a skyscraper. The few moments when Knack can wreak gleeful havoc are still linear, with any breakable buildings predetermined by their placement as destructible gates leading to the next area. Only in its final moments does Knack finally feel empowered and by this point it’s too late to care, given the abstract quality of the last level. Katamari Damacy pulls off size changes in a better way.
The boring trudge that comprises the gameplay is a shame given that the adjoining cutscenes – while rudimentarily written – have high production values and enough charm to entice youngsters. Any attention-grabbing goodwill will be lost during the drab corridor jaunts. Knack has special moves – useful as a last-resort measure – but most will find simple X-button bashing to be enough to complete most of the game, albeit with the spectre of frequent death confounding things. This approach of ‘just enough interest to persist’ pervades most of Knack… it’s not bad, just offensively mediocre. It doesn’t help that the collectibles in the game – found in those secret rooms – either unlock different versions of Knack or helpful gadgets that bestow extra health, power or reveal secret locations. Some of these will take multiple playthroughs to unlock, others might become available in the final quarter. You know, those things that would’ve made a first playthrough easier than the soul-sapping uphill struggle it initially resembles. Of course, you could play the companion Knack app – a Candy Crush clone that is little more than throwaway – to unlock more, but why would you want Knack to invade even more of your life?
Completing the game unlocks challenge modes and the opportunity to restart the game with all your previous stats in place. While boss rushes and taking on waves of enemies might sound like a generous completion bonus they are by-the-book generic and do little to encourage further play. The many incarnations of Knack to unlock (six to be precise, including Vampire Knack and Brittle Knack) pique your curiosity but the required amount of crystals to actually get to play as these variations is laughably high. The effort expended just to play as a reskinned Knack - albeit with an extra power or weakness - is not worth attempting.
And then there’s the question of why Knack has to be on PlayStation 4. It’s certainly not because of the environments or character models, save Knack himself. Human characters are strangely proportioned, especially in the case of (attempting to be) voluptuous Katrina, a woman with the chest and rear of a pornstar but the forearms of Donkey Kong. In fact, the only telltale sign that Knack might be next-gen comes in his very own form, made up of hundreds of individually modelled relic parts. The best bit of the game comes when Knack is killed, these parts raining down all over the shop. As he’s about as stable as a Jenga tower this happens quite frequently to everyone’s delight. Other than that, there’s little that paints this above the last generation titles – even the glorious looking cutscenes are pre-rendered, disappointingly.
Knack, like its namesake, is something constructed of relics – from the basic gameplay to the poor characterisation, nearly everything feels like something from two console generations ago. As a first-party release for a new console it’s underwhelming; coming from the architect of that very console it’s worrying, especially considering the framerate stutters more frequently than I’d expect. It feels close in tone to Xbox 360 launch title Kameo – right down to a very similar sounding score – but that was eight years ago. Kameo has developed a cult following, attracted to its quirky gameplay, stunning soundtrack and its overreaching ambition. Knack seems to have no ambition beyond wowing you with rendering lots of objects, making it feel like an overlong tech demo. If parents are looking for some cartoon fun to keep the children occupied… well… the PlayStation 4 has a knack for playing blurays, too.