Next gen visuals. Old-fashioned gameplay. The PlayStation 4 action-adventure Knack looks better than most video games you've played, but there's a good chance you've played a game like Knack before.
It's not that I want to knock Knack. It's a launch game. Launch games seldom offer more than what Knack offers. You get a game you can show off to friends. You get a game that hints at what new gaming hardware can do. You get a game that feels ready to be supplanted by a richer sequel—or, really, any other game in 2014 or 2015—made by people who are more used to making games for brand-new hardware.
Knack is also a throwback. It's the kind of colorful third-person action game that you don't see from major game creators outside of Nintendo very often. Certainly, the PlayStation has moved on from the PS2 heydey of Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, and Sly Cooper. Throwbacks are fine, if your character is cool enough and your gameplay is fun enough. Knack's is, if barely.
Knack stars a character of the same name. He is, oddly, a sort of weapon of mass destruction, a brawling beast nurtured and directed by a kindly professor who enlists Knack for a military mission and who turns out to have a Lord of the Rings-style weakness for ultimate power. Happily, the professor's assistant is a boy who is wise beyond his years and, luckily, there's a human vs. goblin war for Knack to punch through. The main bad guy is a human military industrialist who looks a bit like Tony Stark. This is a cartoon world of mean robots and enemy soldiers who disappear rather than die, a world of lost loves who wear pink and an evil henchwoman whose mech suit sports high heels. There's a nice dollop of moral ambiguity to the human-goblin conflict, but most of these characters speak in clichés and possible Star Wars homages.
The character of Knack is nevertheless mightily impressive. Initially, and at the start of many of the game's levels, he's just an orb surrounded by a head, arms, hands, legs and feet. All of his parts are magical relics—little pyramids and cubes and the like. The gimmick of the game is that you, as Knack, can walk around, sucking more relics into your body and swelling Knack from Pygmy size to King Kong. At his maximum size, Knack is a bipedal swarm of relics that the game's creative director Mark Cerny says must be rendered by some 500,000 polygons.
This is Knack at pretty large size, but not quite his max:
I can't help but marvel at Knack's look. What I can do with Knack is less of a marvel. I can punch. I can jump. I can dodge. Knack the game is straightforward character action, a brawler with a tiny bit of platform jumping. Across the game's 13 chapters, you'll enter clearing after clearing, street after street and rooftop after rooftop, encountering enemies who are just standing there waiting for you to punch them or to punch back. Knack can jump, punch and dodge in any direction. He also has a trio of special super attacks that are metered by the energy he collects from yellow crystals scattered throughout the game. His enemies have swords or shields. They toss grenades or shoot balls of energy.
It's all quite standard. If you play the game long enough, it's almost meditative in its repetition and consistency of that flow.
From zone to zone, you'll encounter an enemy or four, do the requisite dodges and jump attacks needed to beat them and then you'll move on. This is, I guess, how many games are designed—killing room after killing room, one after the other. Knack just lays it all bare by not arming Knack with all that many moves and by presenting a game world that is so crisp, so high resolution that you can literally see this design playing out toward the horizon. More primitive, technologically-challenged games would only show you one clearing of enemies at a time, but look past the area where you're brawling and you can see the next area and its waiting enemies. You might even see the one beyond that and the one that you'd won't get to until you horseshoe halfway around the level.
The game does look great. The grass! The trees! The purple crystal bridges! They all look sharp in a resolution and framerate that just can't hold up when you see it in a YouTube clip compared to when you see it live on a PS4.
As good as the environment looks, I wanted Knack's own visual detail, his body of floating relics, to amount to more than a special effect. Too infrequently, that's all it is. Mostly, Knack just gets bigger as you stomp through a level and collect loose relics. Enemies get bigger, too, which diminishes the effect of becoming so large. Only in the game's final chapter did I get to experience an abundance of something I expected to encounter throughout the game: the ability to more or less stomp on certain kinds of enemies who, minutes and many relics earlier, had towered over me.
Knack is at its best when the concept of Knack as a being made of loose objects becomes a gameplay element. In a few areas, for example, Knack can build himself up with logs. Wood Knack is a mighty brawler. His problem is that he's also flammable and therefore no friend to archers armed with flaming arrows. When Wood Knack catches fire, he starts losing body mass piece by piece. Occasionally, Wood Knack will have to walk past a fireplace. When he does, he will catch fire. This can't be avoided and it essentially puts his health bar in gradual decline. As that happens and as pieces burn away, Knack becomes smaller, which in turn makes enemies tougher to fight. That felt fresh, but it is an idea that Knack barely explores.
The game also includes a promising sequence involving a metal Knack and some overhead magnets, another opportunity to play with the idea of a body made up of different severable materials. These insightful moments are too rare and most of Knack is disappointingly routine. Punch. Dodge. Get bigger. Move on.
Cerny says he created Knack to be a family-friendly game and even an entry-level experience for new, young PS4 gamers. There's a co-op mode that lets a second player provide an assist. Given the goal, Knack is surprisingly challenging at normal difficulty. A few sections required me to brute-force my way through to the next checkpoint, relying on amassing yellow crystal energy across multiple attempts and then using Knack's special powers to just smart-bomb through. I was also frustrated by the game's checkpointing, which sometimes knocks the player back to fights that precede areas where you can restore your health in full. Why push the player that far back if you know that they'll restore their health before getting to the part where they failed?
At a PS4 launch event this week, I talked to Cerny about the game's tricky difficulty and, with a smile, he pointed out that older platformers were way more challenging. In the new game, there might only be eight enemies between checkpoints, he said, but in an old game like Crash Bandicoot 2, which he designed, he calculated that there were some 150 challenge points (jumps to be made, enemies to be defeated) between each checkpoint. Yes, Knack is way easier than all that.
The game's difficulty spikes would be more forgivable if Knack's moveset was more interesting. That's the problem with this simpler, old-school approach to gameplay and level design. Keeping a character's move-set svelte, reducing gameplay clutter and adding challenge are all commendable things for a game designer to do. But doing those things leaves the core gameplay nowhere to hide. It must be fun. It must be fun repeatedly. Feel is subjective, and even as I punched and dodged with Knack, I never fell in love with the game's feel. There wasn't the hop of a Mario or the wallop of a Ratchet and Clank gun. There wasn't the effective crowd control of a God of War nor the fluidity of an Arkham game.
Cerny suggested I go back and try to dive toward more enemies. Evasions can feel good in the game, but it still feels like something is missing. Well, funny enough, something was missing. Having reviewed the game offline before the PS4's online network was active, I unfortunately did not get to experience one of the more interesting-sounding systems Cerny put into the game.
I'll tell you about it, though, because it might turn out to make the game more appealing—if you have friends who are also playing the game. It's also one of Knack's fresher, more modern concepts. This online system involves unlocking gadgets that give Knack extra abilities, including a combo meter that I have a hunch would make combat more engaging. Unfortunately, playing the game offline without friends makes the combo meter hard to unlock. To get these added abilities, you have to find treasure chests hidden throughout the game's levels. Open the chest and you get a prize. If you play offline, the game will simply run some math and randomly give you a gadget part or a special crystal. You can combine these with others to make things that either give Knack new abilities or even transform him into new types of Knack (I really wanted to be Vampire Knack!). If you're playing online, the game will still offer you an item, but it will also give you the chance to claim any item that any of your PS4 friends found when they encountered that chest in their copy of the game.
Cerny estimated that an offline playthrough would only give you enough parts to make one or two gadgets out of eight but that an online playthrough should net you more than half. Reader, I wish I'd played this game online. And that you did, too. And that we were friends. Well, PS4 friends, at least.
I can't be mad at a game like Knack. It's pretty. It's mostly traditional. It also could be something much better. It's on a brand-new console and, Super Mario 64 aside, my expectations for games on new systems is sea-bottom low. I like the intent to make something classic and sweet. I wish I had more fun playing it, but I'm happy to have seen so much eye-candy.
Knack is not a game to buy a PS4 for, but it's a game to use on the PS4, one that'll dazzle you with crisp visuals and excite you with its detailed main character. Get it as a showpiece for now if you're getting a PS4. Just don't expect to love it in a year.