On paper, I’m sure that “Knack,” for PlayStation 4, looks like a pretty solid idea.
A screenshot from “Knack,” for Playstation 4. — Submitted image
Created by Mark Cerny, a game maker and designer with experience that stems all the way from “Marble Madness” and “Sonic the Hedgehog 2” through the “Crash Bandicoot,” “Jak and Daxter,” “Ratchet and Clank,” “Killzone,” “God of War,” “Resistance” and “Uncharted” franchises. He’s a name not many are intimately familiar with, but his resumé paints an appealing picture
So, Cerny teaming up with Sony’s Japan Studio to craft an old school platformer to launch with their new console drums up tantalizing feelings akin to plopping that “Super Mario Bros.” cart in the old grey Nintendo Entertainment System for the first time.
And yet, while there’s a palpable sense of childhood innocence coded into the game’s DNA, it takes little more than a couple of hours with “Knack” to trace the rest of its lineage back to a bowl of plain oatmeal.
First off, “Knack” is completely linear in design and execution. Players take control of the adorable little golem, run through corridors and enemy arenas, bash baddies with a painfully simple combo system, and absorb wreckage and shrapnel to increase Knack’s size to gigantic proportions (all when allowed within the game’s straightforward and thoroughly unexciting campaign). It has almost the entire genre’s most basic of tropes, all without contributing a single original idea to make it stand out.
Yes, Knack gets pretty huge when he is at full size, but those instances are completely scripted, and play out just like the rest of the game. The levels are all prerequisite forests and mountains, and ice caverns, and lava craters — yet there is no amount of sheen that screams out “I am a next-gen game!” And while there appears to have been a genuine attempt at crafting a setting and characters that would stand apart from other platformers, none of it is particularly interesting.
The characters all look akin to CG animated creatures that weren’t designed by someone at Disney, and follow the “Jonny Quest” playbook, step-by-step, only bland. They have voices that don’t seem to match their look, the worst offender being Knack, himself, who speaks with a thunderous authority, whether he is the size of a building or a bowling ball. And that dialogue … woof.
Matching the emotionally stunted story is the dull gameplay. It just feels lazy, like the sort of thing lesser studios would churn out to meet the release date of a movie tie-in.
While the entire game stinks of focus testing, it plays like an uninspired slog through the Bog of Tedium. I, and the rest of my podcast crew, played it for nearly four hours during the holidays, and we were fighting to find things positive to say, out of a sense of genre loyalty, because it was a platformer.
Players have access to a single three-hit punching combo, a diving attack, and a handful of screen clearing smart bombs which are powered by absorbing “sunstone” — and while these smart bombs may look different, they all have the exact same effect, so choosing which one to use boils down entirely to which canned animation bores a player the least.
I was genuinely impressed with the level of challenge … for the 15 minutes it took to realize that “Knack’s” Olympian difficulty was artificially created to pad out the game length. It takes little more than two or three hits to vanquish the life bar, and send Knack scattering across the floor, and the checkpoints are mercilessly infrequent — meaning that a lot of time spent with Knack is repeating battles again and again, or dodging the same environmental hazards again and again until either the game (or one’s patience) runs out.
Occasionally the developers have thrown in a special ability for Knack to use, but these are either window dressing to fit a level’s esthetic (armour made of wood or ice) or poorly thought out (the stealth sections).
Even then, these are trucked out so scarcely that they don’t even leave a dent in the enormous pile of mindless Goblin punching that makes up the bulk of “Knack.”
So, what is the sum of this nothing?
“Knack” is artistically bland, with a cool idea of a hero that grows in scale with his surroundings, buried under a mountain of dry, repetitive gameplay that is dragged out with a vindictive difficulty curve. It doesn’t even have that shiny coat of next-gen graphics that one would expect with a first-party launch title.
Knack looks kind of cool, made up of a multitude of individual parts, but the only time you get to really admire the detail is in cut scenes.
The camera is divorced from the action, which takes away from any of the detail that went in to crafting this effigy to boredom.
“Knack” lacks the depth of any similar sort of title that has been released since the launch of the PlayStation 2 more than a decade ago. Compared to any platformer on any other console, it’s as plain as porridge.
Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Sony Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: Nov. 15, 2013
Rated: E10+ for Everyone 10 and up.
Email Jon Mercer at firstname.lastname@example.org.