A relic from the past
It’s March. You’ve burned through the stock of PS4 launch titles and Christmas gifts that might have taken your fancy, and little-by-little those other next-gen games are starting to be discounted by retailers around the country.In the relative drought before a somewhat stellar lineup takes hold then, your thoughts might wander to Knack; Sony’s PS4-exclusive platformer written and directed by silver-tongued lead hardware architect, Mark Cerny. As befits the motivations of its creator, this is a distinctively old-school videogame, made by a group of people that wanted to bring back the sort of experience we used to get from a Spyro or a Crash Bandicoot. You jump. You punch. You jump and punch.
The titular Knack is a creature crafted entirely out of mysterious relics that spring from the mines of his colourfully saturated kid-friendly world. Along with a merry band of scientists, teenagers, adventurers and long-lost lovers, Knack sets out on a mission to infiltrate a camp of goblins that recently led an uprising in the capital city, setting off a chain of events that lead our adventurers to locations conveniently placed to capitalise on Knack’s ability to insert Ice, Crystal, Wood and Iron shards into his DNA.
Elementary battlesKnack’s basic gameplay loop will be easy to pick up for anybody with a passing interest in videogames. It’s probably more akin to a brawler than a platformer, with single-button combat taking centre stage over the course of the 6-8 hours it takes to complete.
Each of its levels boils down to a series of enclosed corridors (or gated arenas) in which Knack is tasked with punching everything to a swift demise before making his way over some light platforming sections and moving on to the next. The jumps, double-jumps and wall climbs themselves are never taxing, and I think the number of times I fell to my death could be counted on a single hand by the time the credits rolled.
What couldn’t be counted on those digits is the number of times I died at the hands of an enemy goblin or robot. Nor could they be counted on both hands, or my toes, or those of a crowd of people in the same room. Knack’s combat is characterised in equal parts by its simplistic mechanics and frustrating difficulty spikes.
This a game that stutters and slows down far more frequently than your average console title
But Before we get to those, it’s worth noting that Knack is actually pretty satisfying to control. His movements are smooth and speedy in his basic form (he changes size by collecting relics), and his attack animation is brief enough to allow for swift combos from one enemy to the next.
The problem is that he’s weak as all hell, with even the smallest of enemies capable of exploding him to a screen-filling shower of primitive shapes in either one or two hits. In that respect Knack feels like a game entirely at odds with its child-friendly visuals, with difficult patterns of enemies combining their non-complementary attack patterns into virtually unavoidable flurries of blows. In turn, that means each of the lengthy checkpoints morphs into a series of Dark Souls-type death runs that eventually lead you to the right solution of punches, double-jump attacks or screen-clearing special moves.
When things are particularly difficult there are some obvious combat strategies that bubble to the surface, but they’re not much fun to implement.
Each level is home to several yellow crystals or tanks of power that fuel Knack’s smart-bomb, whirligig of death or missile-type special attacks, which assist greatly in clearing the screen of pesky swarms of enemies. When you die, Knack’s special meter doesn't reset, which means you can repeatedly race to hoover up their contents before being killed and repeating the process. Eventually you’ll build up enough juice to power through whichever pattern of enemies were causing you problems, and proceed to the next arena of repetitious death.
As you can imagine, that’s a grind that gets dull pretty quickly, although when the only other approach is to spam the jumping attack and right-stick dodge moves like your life depended on it, frankly it’s a toss-up.
Maybe I’m just crap at playing Knack, but unlike something like the aforementioned Dark Souls, there’s only a sliver of skill that I felt being reinforced through each of those restarts. I was a better player at the end of his quest than I was at the beginning, but the patterns of enemies felt too random and too sporadic in their AI behaviour. It’s a game that feels far too cheap for its own good, and entirely dependant on reactions and luck rather than skill-based tactics when managing its crowds of goblins, robots and other creatures.
A broken relicThere are moments in Knack that hint at what could have been, most of which revolve around segments of design that were evidently part of a vision to put the PS4 hardware through its paces.
Knack’s ability to change size is chief amongst those technical achievements. He’ll frequently scale from a tiny waist-height creature to something with roughly the same size and manoeuvrability of King Kong, rendering previously tough enemies as simple one-hit kills. There’s a good degree of catharsis here when you end up stomping through swarms of previously-devilish goblins and creatures, although you’re inevitably brought back down to size by the end of each chapter and frequently during the individual stages themselves.
The most memorable sections in Knack play up to that Katamari-like ability to gain size, and especially so when he becomes tall enough to smash through houses and throw tanks around as if they were tennis balls. The few sections in which Knack is able to take on Wood, Crystal, Metal or Ice are also enjoyable, if only because they offer a fleeting glimpse of something slightly different to the repetitive nature of the rest of the campaign.
But there are problems even with the impressive technology powering Knack’s relic-laden form.
This a game that stutters and chops up far more frequently than your average console title, with frequent slowdown matched by a framerate that absolutely tanks in certain situations when Knack is blasted into pieces. Movement speed also slows to a crawl when Knack is in his gorilla size, making him immeasurably more difficult to control and much slower to react. I doubt that disparity was the intention at the start of this project, and it’s a shame that Sony wasn’t able to fine-tune their engine enough to get it running smoothly throughout.
Despite the ambition, it's not a great tech demonstration for the PS4 then. Knack’s lighting and texture resolution manages to produce some undeniably stunning vistas from time to time, but the clean CG art style certainly won’t be to everybody’s liking. The character design and storytelling is also nothing to write home about, with Knack himself perhaps the worst offender in a cast of weirdly unlikeable creatures. There’s little in the way of charm or empathy to draw upon throughout, and I doubt many folks will actually care about the plight of Knack’s band of fellow travellers by the end of their quest.
For those that want to wring more out of Knack than the overly-long running time of a single playthrough, there are multiple collectibles and secrets to find throughout each of the levels, with pieces of machines and objects that can be collected to provide boosts to attack speed, power, relic detection and various other facets of gameplay. They tend to be doled out so slowly as to be useless for those of us prone to playing through a game once however (I completed two gadgets by the end of my run-through), while Knack’s combo meter is also inexplicably locked behind such a collectible path. It feels like it should have been a fundamental part of gameplay.
- Bright and colourful
- Easy to control
- Katamari-style growing hero
- Crisp and clean 1080p visuals
- Cheap enemies
- Way too repetitious
- Dull characters
- Strange art style
Knack PlayStation 4 ReviewUltimately, Knack amounts to a simplistic brawler that can only hint at the excellent gameplay mechanics that mark out the best examples of the genre. Although its limited scope is decently retro-fitted into the modern age with sharp CG-style visuals and a story that at least hangs together, there’s little to love in its blend of incredibly fundamental and repetitious level design coupled with hardcore difficulty spikes and unlovable characters.
The potential was for so much more. Expectations were set for a title that truly showed off the increased processing power of the PS4, and yet Knack only briefly sputters to life with its impressive showers of physics-based relics, undercut by a framerate that tanks at every available opportunity.
There are parts of Knack that are good fun, and the few Katamari-esque sections when our hero grows to epic proportions hint at a more adventurous game that could perhaps be delivered in a sequel. As it stands though, Knack’s platform and brawling action is a diversion at best, and one that could have done with cutting its running time in half and spicing up levels to halt the seemingly endless repetition.
Knack isn't bad, but it's quite some distance from being good.
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