2017 has made it clear: 3D platformers are back in the game. While Yooka-Laylee made scarcely a splash, games like the Microsoft exclusive Super Lucky's Tale and Nintendo's grand-scale Super Mario Odyssey cement the remarkable fact that mascots aren't just back; they're actively competing with each other. So when I tell you that Sony's contender is the sequel to one of the most disappointing launch titles of this generation, you might raise an eyebrow. But here's the thing: Japan Studios' Knack 2 is actually good. Really good.
If you're like everyone else and are not caught up on your Knack lore, that's okay. There's this race of evil Goblins that want to take over the world and you need to jump, punch, and solve your way to victory. Knack does this while accumulating and shedding his body pieces, called relics, to grow and shrink as needed. It's tech-demo-y, sure, but it actually makes for a fairly unique experience.
Knack's journey requires him to visit each new area by plane, meaning he has to leave his relics behind and start every chapter around the size of a human. This sounds disappointing, but in practice it's actually quite memorable to trample over Goblins one moment and then have to spar with them the next. This mechanic also allows each chapter to independently build in scale, making Knack 2 a decidedly more episodic experience than something like God of War.
The combat here is quick, brutal, and fun to pull off, but it's ultimately the weakest gameplay element. Knack starts his journey with just a handful of moves, which the rudimentary upgrade system takes a couple hours to make interesting. Things do get more complex and intelligent as the story goes on, but there's no denying that the game relies on its visual and audible feedback to keep fights from getting too stale. Fortunately, this feedback does the job. The way enemies fly backwards or stumble depending on the kinetic force of your blows, the way each punch yields a different sound depending on what your foes are made of, the way armor crumbles and robots explode, it all just comes together to make every fight a delightful smorgasbord of wanton cartoon violence. Then you have sections that put you in a handful of tank-like vehicles, which are almost too scarce to even mention yet surprisingly good at varying up the action when needed. Sitting down with Knack 2 means preparing for a noticeably imperfect yet consistently enjoyable combat experience.
Each chapter also has its quieter moments, characterized by stretches of platforming and puzzle solving. The moving pedestals of the opening hours are later accompanied by gauntlets of flames and razors, all organically implemented in a way that makes them feel like part of the world rather than a bunch of moving level parts. It's easy to die here, though not hard to survive, and the most generous checkpoint system I've ever played ensures that you'll respawn just seconds away from wherever you screw up. The puzzles you'll come across are intuitive brain-teasers that lead to some great "eureka!" moments. They tend to get undermined by an optional hint system, but I'll emphasize that this is optional. Their use of relics, which you shed and retrieve at the push of R1, is consistently charming, too. If you have steel relics, you might need to lay them out in a trail to create a makeshift electrical wire to power a door. If you have ice relics, you might need to freeze some gears to halt moving parts. Or maybe you'll need to drop them on a pressure pad and allow the mechanism to let your baby-body pass through a new opening. These are just a few examples of the many inventive ways that Knack's defining characteristic is put to use. It's fascinating that, in a genre more than 20 years old, this new mascot has things up his sleeve that are clearly his own.
Knack is charmingly defined by his relics, but the character himself isn't interesting at all. Narratively, our hero really plays second fiddle to the humans - Lucas in particular - who also do little to spice up the story. Strangely, it always seems like there's something more intriguing simmering below the surface that we just never get to see. At one point, Knack is introduced to a brigade of mindless, relic-made imitations, and he stares at them for a while. You get the sense that Knack is bothered by this; that he's having some existential doubts about himself and whether it was right for humans to create him essentially as a weapon. But this is never followed up on. Knack just unwaveringly fights the good fight while keeping a relentlessly positive attitude about things. The biggest interpersonal protagonist conflict actually occurs between Lucas and a monk named Ava, but it just peters out later on, as does a power disagreement between a couple High Goblins. That's not to say this story isn't without its charming surprises, especially in its latter third, but at well over 10 hours, the middling plot drags on; it could've done much more with its material.
The concept of a character made out of a thousand floating triangles sounds like it should be quite taxing on the PS4. But in what must be a benefit of being a first-party title, Knack 2 looks and runs great, especially when utilizing the Pro system. Environments are rich and lush while maintaining a thick, cartoonish flair. The satisfying sound-effects and well-orchestrated music always fits right in with the action. The framerate remains stable in all but the most grand explosive situations, too, and if you're playing on Pro, you can unlock it for an even smoother experience. While not as pretty as the efforts of Naughty Dog, this game does plenty with its hardware.
Knack 2's replay value is a great ace up its sleeve, so to speak. In addition to a cacophonous 2-player co-op mode, you're also given access to multiple difficulties, trophy challenges and thankfully, New Game Plus. The latter feature in particular helps your next playthrough by making it more thoroughly enjoyable than the first. All of your moves are at your disposal, plus the ones you still need to unlock that you didn't quite get around to previously. The story doesn't get any better, but now you know which parts to skip. So when you've finished Knack 2, don't hesitate to sit down with it again later on.
I got plenty of amusement from Knack 2, especially when I was hopping around and solving puzzles. That's not to say the combat system is bad- it just starts out rather bland and could've been more fleshed out. Strong production values are used in the delivery of a competent story marred by bland characters, but they also benefit the gameplay. And in what's surely a testament to smart design, I was never bored in my 14-hour story playthrough. And that's the best way to describe this package. For 40 bucks, you get many hours of solid, charming fun wrapped in a smartly-made platformer. Far from the archaic dinosaur that its predecessor was, Knack 2 is a worthwhile, modern, and entertaining game.