PS4's debut platformer
Every system launch needs a good platformer, right? Knack is a bit different from, say, Crash Bandicoot or Ratchet and Clank, but it does feel like it takes a bit from both games. Of course, that has a lot to do with the its creator, Mark Cerny.
Cerny worked on both Crash Bandicoot and Ratchet and Clank, as well as other top PlayStation platformers like Spyro the Dragon. It’s great then that the PS4 has a launch game with such solid PlayStation platforming DNA.
But is Knack strong enough of a platformer to lead the way into next-gen?
In a world where ancient and powerful relics are readily available, a man named "Doctor" (Doc) comes across one particular relic during a cave expedition. After years of research, Doc was able to use his find to create the ultimate weapon, a magical being he named Knack, in the fight against evil Goblins.
The relic Knack is based around has powers allowing it to attract and attach other relics around it to form a small creature. While Knack may start out being about the size of a toddler, through relic collection he can become absolutely massive, letting him crush buildings and knock aircraft to the ground.
Knack’s health is also directly tied to his relic collection -- when he gets hit, some of the debris fall off. He can smash just about any device in the world to find more to recover his health, which basically doubles as a healing item.
Knack is an action-platformer that has players punching out the monsters and goblins that stand in the way of Doc’s goal to push back a full-blown invasion. The focus is on the fighting, with a single attack button handling most of the action. There’s no way to block as Knack, but he does have an evasive move (a la God of War) that uses the right analog stick to send him scooting away from harm. Knack can also double jump, and can chain these moves into diving jump attacks.
Rounding out his move set are three special moves that draw on power collected from sunstones. One lets him pound the ground for an AoE attack, while another has his relic pieces swirling in a destructive whirlwind. The last lets him send charges as auto-aiming projectiles to take out distant enemies.
The platforming in Knack is pretty light. Outside of the rare balance-walking and obstruction-dodging segments, Knack is usually jumping or double jumping to scale heights to get to enemies. Every level of Knack is made of a series of areas that close off, requiring the player to defeat waves of enemies before progressing. Almost every one of these areas has some kind of door or gate that locks Knack in, meaning that you’re forced to take on every enemy in the game.
While the combat in Knack is simple and mostly satisfying at first, countless waves of goblin face punching begin to wear on you after awhile. It’s a shame that the only variation to these base mechanics has Knack changing sizes. While it’s fun to suddenly become strong and powerful after being small and weak for awhile, the enemy waves Knack goes up against scale up to his size in subsequent areas, making the action feel exactly the same as before.
It may look impressive to go up against towering robots and powerful tanks, but these big enemies take the same amount of hits as the small enemies do. And while there are some secret rooms to find, and special relics to combine to unlock power boosts, they’re not quite enough to break up the action.
The combat starts to go in a creative direction with Knack’s ability to draw up other items into his body to change his abilities, but it doesn’t quite go far enough to make a difference from just normal debris. For example, while Knack can draw up broken wood among his relic pieces to become bigger, outside of moving slightly faster, his abilities aren't really much different from when he’s only using relic pieces. Knack can also draw in ice and crystals, but there’s no appreciable difference other than his looks. With some of these materials, a weakness is also added. For example, his ice body can melt in the sun, and his metal scrap body can be hindered by large magnets.
The combat system has a few problems. The evade move, which you’re forced to use due to the lack of a block button, has you dashing out of the way with a directional press of the right analog stick, but a post-dash delay makes the move useless when up against more than one enemy. You end up being a sitting duck for enemies that have a way of ganging up on you, with the ones that use projectiles never hesitating to fire their weapons in your direction. Worse, many of these enemies have the ability to dash, letting them move just out of your punching range when you try to attack.
Your only option in this situation is to jump around and hope you come in on successful dive attacks. If you do, you need to combo and take the enemy out before he dodges or one of the others starts hitting you. I feel that a slight tweak to the dodge timing would make the combat feel a bit more fair.
So while Knack looks to be a family-friendly title with its bright colors, cartoony cutscenes, cinematic score, and accessible controls, don’t assume that it’s an easy game. On the default ‘normal’ mode, Knack is quite a challenge. Setting the game on easy has goblins hanging back a bit to be more open for hits, but they still put up a stiff challenge.
Knack is a good-looking game, though there are some inconsistencies that pop up from time to time to remind you that you’re looking at a launch title. Watching Knack command the thousands of individual relics that make up his body is like watching the PS4 flexing its graphical muscle -- he’s a walking special effect. Bright colors, high-resolution textures, and highly-detailed enemies make Knack look like an animated CG film in places. At times, all of this combines with lovely backdrops and impressive lighting to make for some of the best visuals I've ever witnessed coming from a videogame console.
It’s strange then that some of the realtime cutscenes are so rough around the edges. Set pieces that would have been nearly photorealistic in gameplay are somehow rougher and less detailed in some cutscenes. Some of the character closeups seem jaggy and rough, too. Most of Knack is visually impressive, but that presentation makes the parts that aren't as slick stick out that much more.
Knack’s combat mechanics seem fine at first, but extended plays will show their limitations. It’s unfortunate that the game design never really breaks out of the room-based, fixed-camera areas where waves of relentless enemies have to be taken out before proceeding. A stronger lean toward platforming and more variety in Knack’s move set would have made a big difference.
I'll admit that it took playing through about 30 sub-levels of Knack to realize that it is likely running on a modified God of War engine. And now that I've realized it, I can’t shake the thought. Everything from the way the camera zooms on in on finishing hits to Knack’s evade moves scream God of War.
All of that said, Knack is still a fun romp, and definitely worth a play. It’s easy to pick up, a joy to look at, and and some of the boss battles are pretty great. My recommendation is that you take it in smaller doses, or try out the drop-in/drop-out cooperative play, which will definitely help when the going gets tough.
It’s not the next blockbuster platformer you'd want out of a launch title, but you need a break from shooters or want something with some personality, Knack is worth a look.
THE VERDICT - Knack
Reviewed by Dale North