One thing I feel I’ve made pretty clear is that I love platformers. I might not always be very good at them, but growing up in the PS1 and N64 era left me inundated with fantastic platformers and a lasting love of the genre. It means that even to this day I’m always on the lookout for platformers that are new to me, in the hopes that something new can take me back to that pure and fantastic mindset of being a child again.
Knack didn’t manage it.
Released Nov 2013 | Developed: Japan Studio | Published: Sony
Genre: Platformer | HLTB: 11 hours
What’s the point of Knack? Why does it exist? Released alongside the launch of the PS4, it was marketed as the first “essential” PS4 title by Sony, with the intention of breaking up the previous console generation’s glut of first-person shooters. Director Mark Cerny has talked about wanting Knack to be considered as a modern-day version of one his most famous titles, Crash Bandicoot, and I can see the thought process here: like Crash, Knack is a mascot platformer, and marketing stressed its appeal to both a core gaming demographic as a nostalgic throwback to platformers of their youth as well as an accessible entry point for people new to gaming. Unfortunately for Cerny and Sony, Knack didn’t quite reach the lofty goals set for it. What Knack is mostly remembered for now is being a tech demo masquerading as a real game.
There’s no way to explain what happens in Knack without it being at least a little bit boring, which speaks volumes of the quality of what we’re working with here. In the world of Knack, humanity has discovered a perpetual, clean energy source using ancient relics to power their motors. This also gives humans one heck of an edge in their wars against the goblins, who try to fight back with swords and clubs, but humans have tanks and lasers so the battle is pretty one-sided. It’s hard not to see humans as some degree of evil, colonial oppressors here, but Knack’s not interested in that. I’m not going to criticise the game for sticking to “humans good, goblins bad” as an idea since it is primarily designed for children, but even games made mainly for kids can successfully engage with complex ideas. Obviously, Knack chooses not to.
Anyway, one day the goblins assault a human settlement and this time they also have tanks and bomber planes and lasers. The human world is not okay with this, and decides to put together a team to investigate how the goblins have managed to get this technology. For some reason, this time is entirely civilian in makeup; there’s a budget Indiana Jones-style explorer, a billionaire arms manufacturer who looks like a cartoon Tony Stark and might as well wear a shirt that says “I’m clearly evil” to go along with his goatee and shifty looks, and a kindly Doctor who brings with him his greatest creation yet: Knack.
Knack is a golem made of the same ancient relics that power the world. He’s a dinky little chap, and his design is genuinely quite pleasing; I like his big blocky head and spiky tufts of red hair, and the cuboid and pyramidal blocks which make up his body float around in a charming way. Japan Studio’s goal was in part to make a mascot for the PS4 to rival the old greats and, in all honesty, Knack is a good shot at that; his design is simple and memorable. However, the main gimmick works to eclipse that; as you gather relics that are littered about the place, Knack grows in size and in visual complexity as more and more polygons float around his central core. The bigger Knack gets, the more visually busy he becomes and, incredibly, the blander he gets; a bare handful of relics causes Knack to grow into what can only be described as a generic action hero, right down to his gung-ho, wisecrack-slinging personality.
The graphics in general have a knock off, direct-to-video Dreamworks quality about them. Everyone is chunky and square, and moves with all the speed of a lazy glacier, and watching them try and plod about is an exercise in tedium. The environments are deceptive; at times they seem very pretty, with bright colours and views stretching off into the distance, but these are almost always just skyboxes and scenery. The actual stages you play are surprisingly plain, with that faint look that reminds me of cheap Unity store-bought assets slapped together. The endless caves you trek through are really prominent examples of this; I don’t know whose idea it was to have multiple stages take place in near-identical cave systems but it certainly was a lazy decision. It’s not like the other stages are a great treat to make up for it either. In every level you find yourself wandering down repeated corridors or generic linear tunnels.
As a tech demo we’re supposed to pay attention to the particle effects as Knack absorbs relics. These are undoubtedly nice looking but they’re very much a surface detail, much like most of Knack. Certainly some work has gone into animating our protagonist, but I can’t help but feel that work was misplaced. For example, getting hit causes waves of relics to fall from Knack, cascading down and tumbling away; it’s an exquisite detail, but once you look up from that the sheer insipidity of the world around you is made all the starker. Walls and boxes of course break when you punch them, but they split into chunks which bump awkwardly against one another as they fall, and when they do collapse it’s in a lifeless, robotic way; similarly when you defeat enemies they fall with all the ceremony of damp lumps of cloth.
You won’t be surprised, of course, to learn that defeating said enemies is as monotonous as the rest of Knack. A single attack button lets you slap at your foes and so the majority of your time will be spent simply mashing it over and over. Knack can also store energy in order to unleash special attacks, namely a shockwave, a ranged attack, and a kind of whirlwind of relics that causes constant damage. Gathering sun energy for these takes time as you eke out only small amounts from the myriad breakable crystals dotted about each stage, so you’re inclined to save them for the toughest moments but when you do they tend to make those fights trivial; each one is a wildly overpowered move, though if any are better I couldn’t say given all 3 perform basically the same function of taking everything out at once. They’re also not especially exciting to witness; the ranged and shockwave attacks just result in ugly flashes of light as the effect happens, while the relic tornado causes an ugly mess of particles to fill the screen.
It’s almost impressive how little fun can be gleaned from the combat, and part of that might come down to just how bloody much of it there is. Each stage is built the same way, with lines and lines of corridors punctuated frequently by big square rooms in which you’re locked until you defeat the enemies in it. The process is always identical: you beat the couple guys in the room, then a new wave spawns in, then another one. There’s no strategy to defeating anything; it’s just dodge their attacks if you can and then hit square until they’re dead, or, if you’re bored, use a super attack to clear the wave instantly. Incredibly, for a game so clearly aimed at a child audience, Knack is kind of hard at points. Knack can’t really take hits, and enemies can dole them out in very quick succession; compound this with the fact that his dodge is a clumsy, clunky movement and you find yourself dying over and over again. The only saving grace is the quick reloads and the reasonably generous checkpointing.
It’s not like the main gimmick of Knack absorbing relics and getting bigger plays into changing the combat (or any of the gameplay for that matter) in any meaningful way. Smaller enemies give way to bigger ones, and some of Knack’s animations change as he grows into his giant hulking brute form, but that core is never any different at any point. The pattern of Knack starting small and then having to grow gargantuan throughout the stage is the way more or less every single level works, so there’s no joy in progression because it’s so utterly predictable.
The only way the game tries to shake things up is by changing the composition of Knack’s body. Early on in the game Knack learns he can absorb basically anything small and shardlike into him, rather than only relics, allowing him to change his body’s properties. The first time this happens it’s with ice crystals, for example, letting him morph into an icy behemoth version of his regular huge self. You might think this sounds interesting, and in any other game you’d almost certainly be right, but in Knack it’s merely window dressing rather than any substantive change. When Knack absorbs other particles he doesn’t change much from the player’s perspective; rather, we just get an added gimmick for the following brief section of that level. Icy Knack, for example, melts in the sun, so we have to get through the next bit as fast as possible while his health ticks down. A later Wooden Knack stage burns on contact with fire, so we have to get through the next bit as fast as possible because he’s on fire, and his health is ticking down. You get the idea here; nothing really changes. The only one that felt any different was Stealth Knack, a glass version of our hero who could shed his relics to pass through lasers, but one germ of an idea doesn’t really make up for the rest.
I suppose I didn’t really go into Knack with any expectations, but it staggers me that it still failed to entertain me in even the slightest way. I hated much of my time with it, which feels like far more emotion than this game warrants; much more though I was often bored, or stewing in that slow, seething annoyance at seeing a game with a spark of potential get wasted. I really do think that in here somewhere Knack could have been a very fine platformer, but everything worked against it, and that baffles me. We have such a rich history of fantastic platformers that the sheer laziness of Knack is an insult all of its own. And, I do think laziness must be the best explanation for this game; how else could you explain the identical levels, the surface-level combat, and the insipid, cliched writing? How else could you explain that this got through testing without anyone stopping and asking the developers whether they were sure this is what they wanted to release to sell the PS4? I played Knack for free on my PS Now subscription, but I don’t think it was worth even that price.
1/7 – ABYSMAL.
Oh dear. Perhaps it’s broken, perhaps it’s savagely offensive, or perhaps it’s a barely-constructed mess. Either way, avoid it at all costs.