Directed by Mark Cerny, lead architect behind the PS4 and the brains behind Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter, there was a weight of expectation surrounding Knack upon its release last year. Unfortunately, the game we actually got failed to meet any of them.
First impressions are good, especially regarding the controls (essential for titles like these) – they feel comfortable and responsive, there’s a dodge mechanic with the right stick promising a nice level of combat depth and you’re introduced to three special attacks very early on. So far, so good. The tutorial eases you in nicely, with an area very reminiscent of early Crash Bandicoot games, whilst the graphics although nowhere near the dizzying heights expected of next-generation consoles, are sufficiently bright and pleasant. Early levels have a healthy amount of ‘hidden areas’ too – giving you collectables that suggest an element of character customization and bonus powers to play with. It’s all very encouraging.
After an hour or so of navigating the same brightly-colored corridors, leading from one room full of enemies to another, smashing through the obligatory fake walls to receive the (not so) hidden collectables, I started feeling a sense of dread. This couldn’t be it, could it? Surely, the power-ups promised and the fighting depth would reveal itself soon, wouldn’t it? I knew this was firmly a ‘family-friendly’ title, but given the reputation of the man at the helm and the titles he had worked on, I just knew there was more to come, I just knew it. Unfortunately, not only had I missed the bulls-eye with those assumptions, I’d missed the target altogether.
[pullquote position=”right”]Knack’s gameplay rarely changes throughout its entire 10-15 hour lifespan[/pullquote]. One minute you’re trudging through a corridor, the next moment it opens up slightly to reveal a room full of enemies. Live, die, repeat. There’s no deviation or mini-games to be had here to break up the proceedings – what you do in the first hour is exactly what you’ll be doing in the last hour. The power-ups promised by all those hidden collectables end up being so inconsistently handed out, that you only end up receiving them towards the last third of the game – and it’s this inconsistency that quickly reveals itself across the board that damages Knack so badly. Let me explain.
The novelty / gimmick of Knack is in his ability to grow larger, thus becoming more powerful. On paper, he’s a stomping fun character akin to a child-friendly Godzilla with the power to destroy everything in his wake. The reality is a very different story. The illusion of size / power is constantly shattered as Knack is killed in two hits by a ladybird. Or maybe one hit from an arrow. Or two hits from an arrow and one from a ladybird. The level of damage Knack receives from enemies is so inconsistent it means you can never form any kind of rhythm or strategy – both of which the combat sorely needs. As you grow larger the camera pulls further away, again, destroying any element of size / scale, it’s as if the game conspires to prevent any kind of fun at every possible turn.
Inconsistency continues in the form of how the secrets are given out to the player – some levels having lots of hidden areas, some chapters having virtually none (meaning no chance to earn any bonuses until far too late into the game). Frame-rate-drops rear their ugly head on several occasions – unforgiveable considering how little of the PlayStation 4’s power is used. Sporadic checkpoints also cause frustration, sometimes one room of enemies will trigger the next checkpoint, sometimes you’ll need to battle through five (couple this with one-hit-kills and it soon becomes an exercise in frustration). Live, die, repeat. A constant lack of care and attention erodes any of the fun aspects. Couple this with the ethos that ‘bigger is better’ – and it means a lot of level padding at the expense of any variety.
Each level contains 3 chapters, and as there are 13 levels in total, that’s an awful lot to get through if you’re doing exactly the same thing all the time. If you do somehow manage to tolerate the boredom and battle through to level 5, you’ll start to see the same environments re-emerge (by this point you’ll be going through the third set of similar-looking caves), and the same old monsters simply re-skinned as new ones. By level 8 you’ll have played as Ice Knack, Wood Knack, and Metal Knack, but these are all pointless upgrades, only serving to provide a different aesthetic and a larger health bar – a health bar that again gets whittled down to nothing after 2-3 hits. The only slight break from the tedium is Crystal Knack (you are able to change into a crystal form to avoid a few laser beams).
This lack of imagination never stops from beginning to end, souring the entire experience. [pullquote]You’ll enter yet another set of caves, using the not only same assets as previous areas but, to add insult to injury, the same fucking level layout.[/pullquote]
This is especially noticeable during the only time the game deviates from the narrow corridor level layout and breaks out into three paths. Each of these short paths contains a switch of sorts that must be hit to progress, another irritatingly repetitive task, and one that you’ll be doing at least three times during the game as well.
Knack‘s central vision, of a character made up of individual relics and its ability to grow / absorb elements, has completely overshadowed everything else. The game’s storyline is virtually non-existent, and so poorly written that it generates no emotional ties to any of the unfolding events or its characters. Gameplay has clearly been sacrificed on the altar of unnecessary padding and odd difficulty spikes – with no attention given to level design or any interest shown to what the player may actually be doing during their 15 hours of gaming. It’s this total lack of understanding of modern gaming fundamentals that hurts Knack the most. There are no RPG elements or open-world environments, no additional movesets to be earned or a store to purchase upgrades, no deviations from the basic early-90s gaming template whatsoever.
There are glimmers of something good here; get enough hidden crystals and you can play as “vampire-Knack” and other variants – all bestowing different abilities. These however are only obtained after multiple play-throughs, but could have easily been incorporated into the main game, giving the option to change play-style on the fly and adding much-needed depth to the proceedings. Similarly there is a combo-meter that you only get after about level 11 (by this time any impact / benefit from it is lost) – only a simple feature, but again, given early enough in the game would have given the player something else to strive for – racking up that meter without being hit. There is even an accompanying mobile game app for your phone – allowing you to earn extra objects in the main game, but again it’s the most uninspiring Bejeweled clone that serves only to disappoint rather than enhance.
Unfortunately, Knack’s success at retail came down to it being partnered with a new flagship console and released at a time when games were in short supply, rather than being a high-quality title. Had this been released on the PS3 a year ago (a console that could have easily managed the game without breaking a sweat) it would surely have been a very different story. Having said that, there is a lot of potential with the character, and if a new developer is brave enough to pick up this IP and attempt a sequel, then we may just see a sequel which finally lives up to the original vision. Until then, Knack is best left in the history books, to serve as a reminder of just how much style over substance can hurt a game – no matter who is at the helm.