Game Review

by Dave Riley, Dec 8th 2013

Knack

PS4

Description:
Knack
Knack, and its main character comprised of hundreds of moving parts, is built to show off the PS4's hardware capabilities, but from a design standpoint it's a uninspired and repetitive slog.
Review:

Knack seems like a game designed to show off new hardware. Its titular character is a robot-like being comprised of dozens, or at times hundreds, of cubes, triangles, and spheres (ancient relics) brought into a humanoid shape. It presumably takes a lot of programming work to make hundreds of cubes, triangles, and spheres animate and rotate and and shift individually. Knack starts out as an itty-bitty, vaguely cute robot-thing and grows bigger and bigger as he collects more relics, sometimes building up to skyscraper size (and gaining an incongruously baritone voice in the process). Despite the hundreds of individual objects floating around the screen, the frame rate never dips, and -- once you've passed the start screen -- load times are basically nonexistent. The strains of lapis lazuli scattered about the landscape glitter perfectly, and the shimmering explosives shimmer like you haven't seen many things shimmer before. Knack, character or game, is certainly a technological marvel.

But no amount of graphical throughput could make up for its astonishing lack of personality. Coming off like a Japanese studio trying to ape Dreamworks trying to ape Pixar, Knack populates its world with fat-faced or eagle-nosed humans whose personalities boil down to "famous explorer," "world-renowned inventor," and "billionaire industrialist," and we know they are those things because the game stamps those words on the screen as each character is introduced. Knack's lack of confidence in its storytelling and dialogue is completely stultifying. As the game hands control over to the player, the world's leading scientist outlines Knack's abilities to a panel of experts, speaking those dreadful words, "As you all know," reminding a room full of the smartest people on the planet that their way of life is fueled by relics, a power-source so pervasive that a Knack character needing a lecture on their fundamentals would be akin to one of us forgetting what you plug the microwave into.

There's probably a better way to dispense exposition, but Knack doesn't see fit to find it, and in fact converts things that ought not be exposition into exposition. Knack's characters don't act sad, they say they're sad. Knack's characters don't act power-hungry, they are told they're acting power-hungry. The primary conflict is between the humans and an invading goblin force. It's said the humans decimated and tormented the goblins so badly that they long ago fled into hiding and are only now returning. There is a strange lack of social conscience -- or even just a lack of comprehension of the plot and its themes -- on display when a goblin questions "Do you love destruction so much?" and a human responds, stone-faced and steely-eyed, "When destruction brings peace, yes I do."

It is not a very good story. It is a children's story, or at least it's presented that way. Often children's stories are an opportunity to try something over the top, or silly, or fun. Knack's story is a cobbled together mess of stereotypes, designed to be inoffensive and uninspiring; it raises hackles only because the lack of effort is so obvious.

Knack's kid-focus also leaves it open to a different criticism -- if Knack is meant for children, then it is surprisingly difficult. No matter how large he gets, Knack can only endure two hits from any given enemy. An acid spitting beetle will kill little Knack in two hits, a laser sword-wielding human will kill medium Knack in two hits, a giant stone golem will kill giant Knack in two hits. Load-times after death are effectively instantaneous, but the checkpoints usually set the player back a fight or two. With enemy attack animations coming out a second or two faster than you think, and with Knack (big or small) maneuvering like a sack of potatoes, death and checkpoints will happen more often than you'd expect.

And that would be fine, too, if what the action were anything better than kid-flavored God of War. Knack has a three hit combo, and he's borrowed Sonic's in-air homing attack. He can dodge, but not very far (or very well, given that it doesn't seem to grant any invincibility frames). His jumps are sluggish, so closing in on enemies shooting arrows or rockets is a test of patience. There's a great deal of recovery time after dodging, jumping, or doing anything, really, and your foes excel at punishing botched evasions. The fixed camera angles make it hard to get a read on your distance to the enemies, so you'll often whiff attacks that felt like they should've hit even, inexplicably, the homing attack. Knack has special moves that shoot lasers at distant enemies or make him explode in a sphere of force. Most of them will end any single encounter instantly, but the special meter recharges so slowly that you'll only get to use them a handful of times a level, and depleted gauge is not restored upon death. Health is also strangely random. Knack grows bigger and recovers by collecting piles of relics scattered around the levels. Sometimes these piles will fill his health bar, sometimes they'll give him something like a twentieth of it which, given a single hit chops off half-or-more of Knack's life, might as well be nothing at all.

Levels are linear to a fault. Not that games can't be linear, not that God of War isn't, not that even something like Bayonetta isn't, but a game squeezed full of ten or more hours of bland combat might as well be fun to explore, or at least nice to look at. Knack's environments and creatures show scads of technical prowess, but not a lot in the way of art design. Most of the goblins look like cast-off Shrek variants, and just about every location -- factory, or goblin village, or ancient ruin -- is a series of austere tunnels, wherein you fight few enemies, between circular areas, wherein you fight groups of enemies. There are, nominally, puzzles, but no reasonable human being would consider them such. Ancient legends describe a late-game area as a labyrinth, a maze protecting a powerful artifact, so that only one wise enough to complete its challenges would be able to secure the treasure. These devious challenges are, to the last, "hit three switches before time runs out."

There are secrets behind breakable walls. Often they hide insultingly small amounts of health or special meter. More rarely they conceal giant chests that hold parts for upgrade. These parts arrive so randomly that you'll be through half the game before you finish your first piece of equipment, which does something unexciting like add an extra level of special gauge. One of the more complex items is a "secret detector," which beeps whenever a hidden item is nearby. But, given that most secrets are hidden behind the sole section in a room where the wallpaper is peeling off, acquiring the secret detector hardly feels imperative. You will not complete all these items in one playthrough, even if you're meticulous, because the list is bloated by crystal relics that unlock special Knack forms, such as Vampire Knack. Most of these forms require as many as twenty relics to unlock. By the end of the game, the most I got of any of them was seven. It seems impossible that anyone would want to play a game with such little variety more than once, but, then again, there are very few PS4 games to choose from right now. Knack's secrets do include an interesting bit of asynchronous multiplayer. Whenever you open a chest you're given a choice between the item you found, and the item any of your friend's found in that same chest. It's a neat idea, and it's nice to see a social element that doesn't rely on microtransactions or poking your friends; would that it were in a better game.

Co-op improves things markedly. In co-op, it is playable; it is often even fun, though one wonders if that's only because you have a partner with which to share your grief. The game's fixed camera angles make no account for Knack Jr -- who is some sort of pseudo-Knackian robot -- so it will often fall off of ledges or disappear off the screen when real-Knack runs too far ahead, but it respawns in seconds and has infinite lives, so it's really no big deal. All the cutscenes appear to be rendered in real time, so it's sort of hilarious to see the game go out of its way to deny the second player narrative presence by blinking them out of existence right before someone starts talking. Knack Jr's primary ability is sacrificing its own life in service of real-Knack's health bar, but even then it's just a smidgen of a heal. Giving the enemies two moving targets mitigates the difficulty quite a bit, especially since the second player's deaths have no bearing on forward progress, and that goes a long way towards making the whole thing more enjoyable. Crashing into each other and bowling each other over with punches inspires a fair bit of laughter, but Knack-prompted laughter is most often directed at the absurdity of fumbly physics and the no-ceremony deaths, as it can be tough to realize Knack is dead until he stops responding and lazily splits into an inert pile of trash.

But at least those load times are quick.

There's something satisfying about the sense of scale, in the rare times the game lets Knack get truly huge. Growing big over the course of the level lets you trample over the same human foes who were murdering you ten minutes earlier. But the bigger Knack gets the clumsier he feels, and hammering on the square button to throw cars at helicopters is only marginally more fun than hammering on the square button to punch beetles. Some levels let Knack assume alternate forms made of wood, metal, or other materials. Almost none of these have any impact on the gameplay beyond extending the life bar and making you dodge a wood-burning fireplace or a metal-sucking magnet.

It's not a very good game, but there are worse things in this world. Knack is fine. Knack is okay. But it should probably be better than okay, if this is how they're going to sell us a PS4. It is a weekend's-worth of co-op game, if you are desperate for a couch co-op in a time when game developers have largely forgotten that people still play games together in the same room. Otherwise, Knack is several hours longer than its simple mechanics can really sustain, and it's a great deal more stupid than even the most generous interpretations of its plot.

The end credits roll with Knacks of all sizes dancing along with a popular song, like a last-ditch effort to instill the game with even an iota of style. But Knack is bland. It is pretty, in a sense, but it is without flavor. There are worse games than Knack, but in many ways a dull game is worse than a bad game -- a negative reaction is at least a passionate one. There's very little in Knack that inspires passion. What we have here may be a technical marvel, but only the engineers will know for sure. From the outside looking in, if they'd spent half as much time on any other part of the game as they did animating the bits and bobs, maybe Knack would've contained something worth caring about.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall : C
Graphics : B-
Sound/Music : C-
Gameplay : C-
Presentation : C

+ Impressive technological showpiece
Art style, writing, and gameplay all uniformly bland

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