Knack

I was fully prepared for Knack to be the quintessential launch title – the game that looks slightly better than what your old console can do, but doesn’t do anything revolutionary.  I went into this game hoping that it would be a fun, souped-up PS3 game.  Even against those modest expectations, Knack wasa major letdown.  Other than some cool physics effects, the game does nothing to show what makes the PS4 special.  Worse than that though, Knack is just a crummy game that wouldn’t be fun to play on any platform.  It is shallow and repetitive, the level design is unimaginative and boring, it is shockingly irritating and unforgiving, and the bland Knack character adds nothing to a dull story.  If you are considering buying a PS4 to play this game, then here is a no-brainer recommendation – don’t.

Knack feels like a hodgepodge of ideas that were thrown together without a coherent vision or any idea how to turn them into a fun game.  It starts with the obvious attempt to make it a flagship character action game.  Somebody at Sony looked back on the huge success of games like Ratchet and Clank and Crash Bandicoot and thought that the PS4 launch would be a great opportunity to introduce another of these characters and create a successful new franchise.  Unfortunately, nobody had any idea how to do this, so they came up with Knack, a completely dry character in a boring world with no personality.  Knack shows no emotion and his voice has to be the poorest voice selection in the history of video games.  Instead of having a lively, energetic voice that might appeal to kids (or anyone for that matter), Knack has a deep but flat, monotonous manner of speech.   Knack is more likely to put you to sleep than he is to charm you.  Something went horribly wrong in the birth and development of this character.  The story, likewise, is totally lifeless and dull.  The modern day setting, which includes goblins and giant mechs, had potential, but the story’s boring, emotionless writing renders it all worthless.

Knack’s gameplay and level design are as uninspired as its story and characters.  Knack is a sentient relic who starts off small and gets bigger and more powerful as he picks up little pieces.  In this regard, the game borrows a little bit from the KatamariDamacy series.  Unfortunately, it takes this curious premise and does almost nothing with it.  Instead of offering you an adventure that mixes lots of fighting, platforming, and puzzle solving, Knack is a boring, repetitive, fixed camera beat-em-up.  There are a few short areas in each chapter that could loosely be called “platforming” or “puzzle solving”, but they are so simple and rudimentary that nobody above the age of six could possibly be challenged by them.  90% of the game consists of entering a mini-arena with a few enemies, smashing them, and then going on to the next arena.

Knack has three basic moves – a dodge, a jump, and a punch.  That’s it.  He also has three special attacks that consume collectible crystals and, in general, look impressive but are otherwise very vanilla.  The combat has absolutely no nuance or variety.  90% of the enemies in the game require a one-two combo of jump/dodge and punch.  The dodge is mostly unnecessary because you can jump over most attacks.  There is no ranged attack (other than a special attack), and there is no block.  The D-pad, the shoulder buttons, and the triggers all go unused.  On the default difficulty level, the game is wholly unforgiving and most enemies in the game are either one or two hit kills.  This means that survival essentially amounts to perfectly executing the same simple move over and over again.

Knack gradually gets bigger each level.  Then, after a few minutes of being big, Knack has to shed some pieces to get past a door or power up an elevator, and he becomes small again.  You have no control over Knack’s size, as it is determined entirely by what you find during the game’s linear levels.  There is no lasting character progression in the game, other than bonuses that you can get by collecting parts for devices.  There are a few short sequences where a giant Knack gets so big that he gets to smash some buildings or grab vehicles and throw them.  During these sections, as you imitate King Kong and destroy tanks and buildings, you get to see a fleeting glimpse of what you were hoping the game could be.  These parts of the game are where it shines, but they are too brief and too far between.

The premise of Knack is interesting, but you couldn’t be less imaginative with it than this game if you tried. A creature that gets bigger and more powerful by picking up little pieces in the environment and the only mechanics that the game offers are jumping and punching?  The first hour of a God of War game does more than this. For what it’s worth, the enemies that you fight do show all kinds of variety.  There are beetles, scorpions with spiked balls for tails, drones that shoot lasers, at least a dozen different armored enemies, tanks, gunships, giant mechs with a variety of attacks, and bizarre magical guardian creatures.  It is too bad that the game squanders this wonderful variety by giving you no variety in the tools that you can use to fight them.

There are a few levels that attempt to change up the formula by giving you different materials to pick up, but the formula of boring punching and insultingly easy puzzle solving never improves.    For example, at one point in the game, Knack can pick up optical crystals to become “Stealth Knack”.  The only thing that Stealth Knack can do though is go through security lasers without tripping them.  So, when you see lasers, you press a button to go stealthy, walk through the lasers, and then press a button to become normal Knack again.  This is what passes for “puzzle solving” in the game.

Knack’s hidden collectibles are yet another example of how elements were added to the game without any understanding of what makes them work.  Knack can grab parts for various devices out of treasure chests, and once you have all the parts, you can build machines that give you special bonuses.  It sounds good, but there is one huge problem: you don’t actually complete any of these machines until near the end of the game.  This means that you get absolutely no reward for all of your secret hunting until the experience is almost over.  It is probably the dumbest collectible system that I have ever seen.  This feature would make replaying the game more fun, but there is little chance that you will want to play through Knack a second time.

On a technical level, Knack is moderately impressive, especially with its use of physics.  Particularly impressive are the modeling of the little pieces that you collect to make Knack bigger.  When you smash an object, a lot of little pieces form something akin to a little nanobot cloud that swirls around for a second and then swarm onto Knack.   The way that enemies’ armor breaks when you punch them is pretty neat too.  Knack himself looks pretty spectacular up close when you see how he is essentially a collection of little pieces that have no skeleton.  Overall, the game looks really nice, but there are still some PS3 games that look better (such as The Last of Us, Beyond: Two Souls, and Ratchet and Clank: Into the Nexus).  The game’s visual fidelity and polish are high everywhere, but other than the game’s titular character, nothing in the game looks inspired.

On top of being weak and monotonous in its design, Knack also can be a supremely irritating experience.   The game is loaded with one or two-hit kill enemies.  The default difficulty level is very hard, and even the “Easy” setting is more challenging than the “Normal” for lots of games.  Gamers who are attracted to a challenge may find this difficulty appealing, but even the most patient will be stretched to their limit by the monotony.  Knack’s challenge is rarely satisfying, and the game never gives you the feeling that it is training you to be better by punishing you for playing poorly.  The platforming and puzzle solving are even simpler and easier than what you see in the Lego series, so the difficulty of the combat makes little sense.  Given how little effort appears to have been put into much of this game, it almost seems like an accident.

It is hard to imagine that many people will enjoy playing Knack.  It isn’t a game that would be great were it not for one fatal flaw.  It is a game that would have to be completely redesigned in order to thrive.  The levels would have to be more interesting and combat would have to be much more diverse and robust.  On top of those changes, the story and Knack himself would have to be rewritten to make them appealing.  Not every moment in the game is bad, and there are some times when you are big enough to smash buildings that it is downright enjoyable.  Even if the game’s challenge or the appeal of having a shiny new toy tempt you to acquire this game though, you are better off leaving it alone.