A next-gen brawler that fails to offer anything new
PlayStation 4: The dawn of a new era in gaming. The reveal of the console introduced new designs, new technology and new ideas. Since first impressions are extremely important, what game could showcase the PlayStation 4’s ability better than Knack? Moving past that sarcastic question, there were a lot of heads being scratched when Knack was first shown publicly by video game designer Mark Cerny. The game looked as if it were being developed with care by Japan Studio, but it was not the Uncharted or God of War people were expecting to be blown away by. Even so, fans waited with bated breath to see if this launch title could actually deliver a next-gen experience. With the launch of the PlayStation 4, Knack has hit the shelves and is finally available for purchase. Is this tale of relics, humans and goblins a worthy reason to jump on next-gen bandwagon? Or does this adventure fall in line with past lackluster launch titles?
Kicking off this Pixar-esque story is a goblin attack on a human settlement. The attempt at first seems feeble as the goblin weaponry—consisting of swords and bows—can hardly make a dent in the fortress. That all changes when the goblins perform a tactical retreat in order to reveal their heavy artillery: rifles and tanks. This causes a problem for humans since they do not understand how the goblins, a violent yet primitive race, could obtain this type of technology in such a short period of time. This leads humanity’s female president to call a meeting and decide what elements they can use to investigate and combat the goblins. At first, the scientist Viktor claims his robots can get the job done. However, Doctor Vargas and his assistant Lucas say there is another mean to get the job done. Combining relics—which humans use to power their machinery—from an ancient civilization, the doctor was able to bring Knack to life. How he does it is not explained; but that’s not important. Why? Because now we have Knack! The latest, most valuable asset to human society!
From there the story takes a turn as the severe threat in this universe is not really the goblins but actually some of the humans. Do not worry; that was not a spoiler. To anyone who has watched any type of animated Disney film or Saturday morning cartoon, the story follows recognizable patterns. For the entirety of the game the characters that are evil stay evil, and the characters that are good stay good; and any of the very rare “twists” or “turns” are hardly surprising. Though the story isn’t exactly of the same profundity as Inception, what it does do it does decent enough. Knack’s plot is meant to be linear like its gameplay; always moving forward. Helping bring it to life are the charming characters and settings. Unless you’re someone who craves tragedies, you will cheer on the protagonists as you eagerly wait to see what happens next.
The cutscenes between chapters are enjoyable to watch thanks to the design and the voice acting. Although Knack is not exactly pushing the PlayStation 4 hardware to its limits, Japan Studio has created a world worth visiting visually. The animation is not at Pixar’s level but the landscapes and characters are designed with that perfect sense of charm due to the numerous colors vitalizing the atmosphere. Those craving several different shades of military browns may feel the look is childish, but these designs fit both the tone and aesthetic of the game. Backing the looks up is the talented voice cast giving each character an individual presence, instead of seeming like tool to keep the story moving forward. The only voice I had a difficult time accepting was the game’s title character. When Knack is comprised of only a few relics, he does not speak. When he absorbs more relics to increase his size, he suddenly develops a deep masculine voice. At first, it seemed really out of place; but I eventually got used to the hulking mass dropping the bass with his vocal chords. Nevertheless, I feel the lack of a voice due to Knack’s tiny stature hindered the character. Since Japan Studio wanted Knack to have a voice, they should have given tiny Knack a high-pitched voice. As he gained relics to grow into a much larger being, the voice could have deepened, and maybe even his personality alter, resulting in a more potent character. It may seem like I am being picky, but I believe this would have worked much better for the game’s title protagonist instead of constantly switching him from a silent protagonist to a vocally active one.
Players will assume control of Knack from the start of the adventure and never depart from guiding the relic being until the end of the game. It would have been nice to take control of some of the supporting cast in the game a la Sly 2: Band of Thieves, but maybe that could be saved for a sequel should one ever come to fruition. Knack, at first, is an interesting character to play as. Since his size changes throughout the adventure, players must change the way they approach obstacles. When Knack is tiny, all enemies and lethal traps are dangerous, usually resulting in a one or two hit demise. Fortunately, tiny Knack is quick enough to dodge most incoming blows and projectiles. As Knack grows in size, due to absorbing relics scattered throughout the world, his speed and maneuverability decreases, yet enemies who were once troublesome soon become cannon fodder due to the enlarged protagonist’s ability to trample over foes. This dynamic gameplay feature is certainly impressive, but it is not enough to keep the thrills alive for the entire adventure.
Knack, at its core, is a 3D brawler with a dose of platforming. The platforming sections, when they occasionally arise, are extremely simple in nature. Anyone experienced in the ways of a certain Italian plumber will have no problem overcoming them. This means that most of the game is spent moving from one area to the next, punching everything and everyone that isn’t Knack. This results in a repetitive formula throughout the eleven hour journey. The repetition would be much more tolerable if the combat had some depth. Sadly, Knack has a three-hit combo that players will use over and over again. Rounding out those three attacks are three special moves available to Knack as long as he has collected enough sun crystals (which are easily found). Although these special moves, consisting of a ranged attack, a ground slam that would make the Hulk proud and a tornado of relics that will decimate almost any opposing force on screen, are great at first glance, they lose their appeal quickly. With a game that puts so much focus into combat, it’s a shame to see such a lack of moves and abilities. Since Knack can control the relics, and even some elements of nature, he absorbs, it would have been nice if he could use them to form different types of weapons, like a sword, to use against his enemies. Without these unique abilities or combat mechanics, you begin to realize there isn’t anything new to see combat-wise.
This does not mean what Knack is offering, in terms of combat, is done poorly. There were many intense struggles when Knack’s health dwindled and two dangerous foes lingered in my path to victory. Dodging blows and swings worked tremendously, and the excitement as I brought down the final enemy granting me story progression was enough to warrant an enjoyable experience during those moments. The flaw with this system was the game’s restrictions. After defeating those dangerous monstrosities, I was placed into the next open area and asked to repeat it all over again. When you take a look at past games such as Jak and Daxter and Sly 2: Band of Theives, you will realize that you have lived through that “enjoyable experience” multiple times but with more freedom. In those games, released on a console from two generations ago, players were always given multiple options to dispatch their adversaries so combat wouldn’t grow tiresome. After doing so, a chance to explore was offered so players would not feel like they were being herded toward the next confrontation. Knack fails to boast those options and rarely does the game give players the opportunity to step away from the mandatory path. Because of this, those exciting moments diminish steadily as progress is made. With our world being introduced to the next generation of video games, it’s puzzling to realize this launch title feels more restrictive than the past entries in its genre.
While Knack’s move set may not be varied, the enemies are. Due to the setting and Knack’s size constantly changing, the game throws several different types of baddies his way. Even though every minor opponent simply needs to be introduced to Knack’s fists, it was quite refreshing having to learn new enemy attack patterns regularly. You will see the same goblins from time to time but, for the most part, there are enough enemies to shake things up. Another aspect I found relieving was that the game was quite challenging when it needed to be. Don’t let the cartoonish looks fool you; this game can be somewhat difficult at times as new enemies can get the drop on unsuspecting players. When Knack is defeated—and this will happen—the penalty is minor. The game will send the player back to the last checkpoint an infinite number of times until the obstacle is conquered. While I was not bothered by it in the least, some may find it a nuisance when the checkpoint is several arenas back and you are forced to play through it all again. Thankfully, players will have no technical issues when forced to traverse through these landscapes. Not once did I experience erratic framerate while utilizing the responsive controls, and visual hiccups were virtually nonexistent.
In an attempt to extend replay value there are secrets hidden in every chapter, and there is also a local cooperative mode. The secrets come in handy as they combine to build gadgets that give Knack a slight advantage in combat. The other types of secrets are special relics that can change the form of Knack. Unfortunately, I was not able to build most of these inventions until my second time playing through the game. This is understandable when it comes to Knack’s overpowered forms, but it’s confusing when objects like a combo meter are hidden from the player. As for the two player mode, there is one glaring flaw. Playing with a couch buddy is enjoyable as both Knacks grow to monstrous sizes, demolishing any and all malevolent forces in their path. However, there is no death penalty for the second player. The moment Knack number two is beaten, a meter quickly fills up before resurrecting the fallen comrade. The only time a checkpoint is used is when Knack number one is defeated. This means player one could easily sit back and let their partner do all the dirty work allowing for easy progress.
Knack is another game in the long list of “it could have been so much more”. Performance-wise, there is nothing wrong with the game. It runs smoothly, the characters are interesting enough and the look of the game is quite charming. Yet, the game does not offer anything new and that is a problem considering it is a part of a new generation on consoles. While the story does a decent job, some may not find it in them to adore such a linear tale. The game’s heavy focus on combat fails to aid the situation due to the lack of depth resulting in a repetitious brawler that many will not want to stomach through. Japan Studio does have an interesting property on their hands; one that could be molded into something great should they choose to put the work into it. As for this initial entry, Knack is yet another example of why you should not get your hopes up for console launch titles.