Knack 2 Review
A sequel that tries to put the franchise back together
From Crash Bandicoot, to Spyro, and more recently Sackboy, the PlayStation brand has enjoyed great success when it comes to action/platforming franchises' heroes acting as a sort of mascot for a console generation. There's just something about the accessible and colorful 3D platformer that appeals to gamers of all ages. Mark Cerny, the man who architected the PlayStation 4 itself, clearly had a vision to continue this trend with his own entry - a new IP and hero called Knack. Unfortunately, whether it was due to lack of time or Mark's attention being obviously more focused on the new console, that PS4 launch title didn't exactly thrive. But surprisingly, it seems neither him nor Sony were ready to give up on this new hero. Knack 2 hopes to keep the series alive by improving on its predecessor, and manages to do that for the most part.
Players once again assume the role of Knack - a creation of The Doctor, made up of relics from an ancient civilization. The Doctor has managed to give this creature life, and in a brief and well explained recap players will learn about how Knack and his friend Lucas managed to save the world in the first game. A few years have passed since the first game, with Knack and Lucas having moved to live in a big city. But the pair's adventurous spirit wasn't lost, and one day they set out with their uncle Ryder to show him a newly discovered burial site of a battleground. We learn that there once was a war between the very technologically advanced goblin civilization and the more primitive humans. The humans prevailed, despite the goblin army wielding robots as their front line warriors. While investigating this battleground, the ancient robots suddenly begin to wake, and soon they begin to attack nearby villages.
The trio hurriedly meet up with The Doctor, as well as a local group of Monks, to figure out why the robots are waking and how to stop them. It turns out the monks have been tasked with protecting humanity ever since the ancient wars with the goblins, and to maintain peace among humans. As leader of the monks, Xander, works with The Doctor to find answers, Knack, Lucas and Ryder are joined by a young monk named Ava as they take a more hands-on approach and explore various locations for clues and battle foes.
Knack 2's story is a decent one. While not exactly unique, there are a couple of twists to the tale that keep it entertaining, though it does feel a bit overly long. The returning characters remain appealing and friendly, sticking to their noble personal goals and motivations. The new characters meanwhile, Xander and Ava, are not very entertaining nor believable, with a few key decisions that make them both seem rather bland and clueless. The writing is definitely partially to blame for this - the quality of the dialog varies greatly, with some scenes being fairly well made, while others are outright laughable with their doltishness. The adventure should keep younger fans engaged, but this isn't exactly Pixar quality entertainment, and older players will be annoyed by the daft actions and dialogue of some of the characters.
The gameplay of Knack 2 is all about streamlining the ideas of the original game, and it succeeds in making a more focused and better paced experience. As before, the game is broken up into a series of levels, each taking place in their own location across the game world. From jungles to snowy mountains and dry deserts, from ancient ruins to research labs, the levels go through all the setting variety they can muster, and it does make the adventure feel rather grand in scope. You explore these totally linear levels as Knack himself, jumping between platforms, occasionally solving simple and quick puzzles that involve levers and boxes, and engaging in combat. The platforming remains quite accessible and not overly challenging; failing simply returns you to the start of the section and there are no lives to worry about. Controls are responsive enough for the level of difficulty. If you play on Easy difficulty setting, some platforming sections can be skipped entirely if the younger players can't get through them, which is a nice touch. The game still utilizes a static camera angle, and uses it to hide secrets within levels. And while it behaves better than in the original game there are still frustrations, especially during combat, when you can't see what you're attacking.
The combat has been greatly expanded in this sequel. The basic punch, kick, and dodge still work well enough, but now there's a wide variety of new moves that can be unlocked. Knack collects Relic Energy from fallen enemies as well as in hidden chests, which is essentially an experience meter. You use these exp points to unlock new moves or improve existing ones; the unlock path is only semi-open, as you must learn all skills within a set block before moving on to the next one. Knack later gains the ability to perform spin kicks, a hook shot to grab from distance, boomerang throws, a super punch that breaks the enemy shield/block, body slams, and so on. The moves are fun to pull off and provide more flexibility depending on the enemy you face. To help you along, levels are littered with yellow crystals to fill a single Sunstone gauge, which acts as a replenishable shield that absorbs damage. Also, there are specific enemy encounters where a Super Crystal appears - letting Knack become invincible and super strong for that battle, and helping players unleash some satisfying fury. Both of these are examples of streamlining from the first game.
However, despite the added depth and relative ease (most enemies fall within a few punches), the combat can be surprisingly unforgiving on occasion. This is because of two factors: Knack is interrupted and must recover after being hit; and enemies are quite fast and love to dodge and jump around. This means that unless you've got an enemy cornered and can pull off a number of punches in a row, the best you can ever hope for is a few hits before they jump out of range, or you are hit and interrupted. On occasion, multiple enemies chain together attacks so quickly that Knack has no chance to recover or dodge (which, by the way, leaves you very exposed because Knack pauses after a dodge). On higher difficulties, this leads to lasting frustration, being stuck on the same enemy encounter for many, many attempts.
Knack still has his unique ability to grow overtime, and as you make your way through the level and find more artifacts, Knack grows to sizes well over 20 feet tall. During these action-focused moments, the game has a fantastic sense of scale as Knack swats away smaller foes like annoying flies, and crushes through whatever structures stand in his way, on his trek to battle a particularly large and menacing baddie. It becomes a tad formulaic to wrap up a number of levels this way, but it never loses its King Kong feeling. But, as before, you can also make Knack fall apart at the press of a button, which is used to solve puzzles, and get through platforming sections where the tiny version of Knack is required to squeeze through. This size-altering mechanic remains a staple for most of the game and is well utilized to bring variety to the platforming and the puzzles.
But as fans will recall, Knack can do more than just change his size, he can also transform into a few different types of material. As with some previously mentioned elements, this mechanic has also been both streamlined and expanded. During specific parts of a level, Knack discovers some materials that he can absorb and gain special properties. As Ice Knack, players can freeze certain switches to solve a simple puzzle; as Stealth Knack, you can freely pass through lasers in Knack's small form. As Iron Knack - and the other two forms - Knack gains a few variations on his typical attacks, and also extra armor, but taking too much damage makes Knack return to his usual form. If Knack breaks apart and then rebuilds himself while using one of these transformations, he leaves behind a statue of himself made of that material. This is used as an additional puzzle piece where you need to weigh down a pressure plate, for example. Knack's different forms are simple and functional, and they are used well enough in both combat and puzzles to inject further variety into the game.
As mentioned earlier, levels are linear and have a static camera, which means there are plenty of opportunities hide small secret passages that lead to a treasure chest. These treasure chests contain a randomized piece of a gadget, and collecting all pieces unlocks it to be used. The gadgets offer passive effects, ranging from showing enemy health bars to saving you from a deadly fall. The mechanic is pretty much unchanged from the first game, as is the search for crystals, of which there are two types. Collecting all crystals lets you unlock a special Knack for use. The game took about 10 hours to complete finding over 50% of all collectibles (both treasure and Relic Energy chests), and with the ability to start a New Game+ or use level select, players should have good reasons to replay the campaign. For those needing even more incentive, each level also features tracked scores and missions to earn medals, and compete on the leaderboards. Further, the entire campaign supports seamless drop in/out local co-operative play that functions perfectly, as players can even combine their moves during combat for flashier takedowns. It does get a bit visually busy at times, but playing in co-op is good fun.
Outside of the campaign, you can also partake in one of three Coliseum attack battles (trying to set a maximum combat score within the allotted time limit), or one of about five Time Attacks (beat the clock through a section of a level). These additional modes feel rather barren in content and don't offer much new comparatively to their original debut in the first game. They are a decent distraction and feature leaderboards as well, but won't hold your attention for long. And even here, in modes that are custom built and are separate from the full level, the fixed camera struggles and hasn't been adjusted to properly help you see what is ahead in Time Attacks, or where all enemies are in the arena of a Coliseum.
Where Knack 2 is undoubtedly better than its predecessor is in its presentation. The texture and effect quality may not push the PS4 to its limits, but the game's colorful visuals, nice art design and solid voice acting create a very welcoming and enjoyable atmosphere. The soundtrack is also quite strong and environments have plenty of variety. Animations and combat flow together smoothly, and the game runs well above 30 FPS most of the time. Though if you prefer a consistent look, a 30fps limit can be forced in options.
Knack 2 is a sequel that improves on its predecessor in many aspects. And while the original game didn't set a very high bar, that shouldn't detract from the fact that SCE Japan Studio and game director Mark Cerny have obviously put an effort in helping Knack overcome some of its problems. The combat, transformations, and collectibles have been streamlined and expanded where it made sense, and the platforming remains enjoyable, if a bit straightforward. The story is worth seeing through to the end, although it feels a bit stretched out, and the original cast continues to deliver solid performances despite struggles from the newcomers. Though it isn't an excellent or even a great game, Knack 2 is a worthwhile sequel for fans who enjoyed the simple charms of the original and wanted something a bit better. It's an uncomplicated action/adventure/puzzle game that ticks all the boxes with competence, and is enjoyable enough for what it is, with a decent price tag to bolster it.