Knack – PS4
Release Date (NA): November 15th, 2013
Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment Japan
Nerd Rating: 7 out of 10
After reading The Watchman’s review of Knack for the PlayStation 4, I nodded my head in affirmation as it seemed that perhaps not all 8th gen releases were going to be long and arduous games. Knack came off as a straightforward, if not relatively simple, throwback to beat ’em ups of the past. Though the decision to purchase a PS4 near its launch had been rattling around in my head for some time, it wasn’t until my son and I completely blasted through the demo version of Knack at a local GameStop that I resolved to pick one up so soon.
Many of my views will echo The Watchman’s own sentiments. While I struggled to find another PS4 game to kick off my experience with, Knack was by far the most appealing. It isn’t the freshest or most technically meritorious launch title that many people will expect, but it is an appreciated early effort by Sony to give fans of a bygone era of gaming a reason to check out the new console. If even 1 out of every 10 PlayStation 4 games can approach this level of simple gameplay meets current generation standards of graphics and controls, the newest Sony platform may be able to reinvigorate the spirits of gamers feeling jaded and left behind by the advancements of the last 10 years. Clearly I am just as excited about what a launch title like Knack represents as well as the game itself.
My earliest memories of unabashed freedom in the world of brawlers goes back to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game for the NES. Whether you most fondly recall Streets of Rage or Double Dragon, beating the hell out of endless hordes of enemies is/was a gratifying experience (until those later levels…) for us children of the 80s. Knack takes total advantage of these old-school gaming mechanics and mixes in a heaping dose of fluidity from recent hack-and-slash titles such as the God of War series to make for an all at once familiar but strangely new experience.
There’s a mildly interesting story about goblins and underground relics that I won’t spoil for you, but essentially, the player controls Knack, a sentient creature made up of several seemingly inanimate objects that possess a mysterious energy. In a sound byte and visual effect immediately reminiscent of any of the several Lego video games, Knack can assimilate these pieces into his own form and thus grow bigger as more of these “relics,” as they’re called, are discovered throughout the game. The relics also give Knack a number of other interesting properties, including his ability to unleash storms of them during his special moves (aided by the scattered “sun stones”), give power to powerless devices of this future-world, and the aforementioned limited control of his physical size. Knack looks something like an anthropomorphic lion-wolf hybrid, and as his size increases, so do the details of his features, not to mention his transformation from something like a cute pet to an ominous, even monstrous, otherworldly behemoth.
Knack’s foes typically come in the form of goblins (along with other creatures at their disposal) and robots, depending at what point in the story the player has progressed to. He has two main actions: jumping, and hitting. Despite the simplicity of the controls, they remain mostly adequate. He can also initiate three separate super moves after gathering enough energy from sun stones, essentially granting Knack temporary invincibility in two cases and targeting distant enemies in the third. A quick dodge move can be performed with the right joystick of the DualShock 4, either on ground or in midair. It takes some practice to properly time these maneuvers but it’s well worth the effort by the time Knack is bombarded with projectile attack after attack. Other abilities exist on a situational basis such as stealth mode, transferring relics to inoperative machines, and throwing vehicles at enemies. I’ve so far found no integration of the controller’s touchpad, but this isn’t completely unexpected considering the gameplay at hand.
How does it all add up? Effectively. Complete novices to video gaming will be able to pick this game up and make headway within a matter a minutes. With frequent checkpoints (though unmarked), no finite amount of lives, and adjustable difficulty, there ought to be enough here to please anyone. The developers have put real care and thought into enemy design, and while Knack’s tactics vary little throughout the game, the player must constantly adapt to new and different adversaries. Everything from kamikaze junebugs to goblins in mechanical exosuits to artillery-laden tanks and planes are encountered and must be dispatched with. Knack is clever enough with level design and enemy AI that players can’t rely too heavily on brute button-mashing but the combat isn’t so difficult that one must carefully plan each attack.
The ease with which Knack darts and leaps around his surroundings is surprisingly perfect. It isn’t necessary to meticulously aim each and every attack. The game engine takes over as if to say “close enough” or “we know what you’re trying to hit” and allows for a seamless flow of attacks and recoveries. Jumping, double jumping, and strafing act as generally effective avoidance measures and the player won’t find too many incidents where the controls simply fail them. Any fan of older games in the genre will remember high intensity situations where their character was furiously punching in the wrong direction, or jumped into an attack rather than away from it. Not so with Knack. So fluid are the mechanics when it comes to beat ’em up gameplay that you’ll be wondering why someone hasn’t done something so refined before now.
Besides the fighting, there is a certain amount of platforming to be found. Here’s where Knack takes it’s heaviest bit of criticism from me; there’s just enough platformer elements to keep it from being called “not a platformer,” but there aren’t really enough to add significance to the game. A few jumps here, a narrow ledge or two there, but nothing all that drastic. In fact, Knack only has one speed (a sort of trot) and can’t even run. Jumping at all seems to be added to the game only to facilitate combat and to superficially add a degree of freedom to movement. Never does it come into play in the way that other platformers utilize it, for example I’ve yet to run across a section of any level devoted to precision jumping. Double jumps can take care of most anything, and if they can’t, then the area is flat out inaccessible. Sure, you’ll probably walk off a cliff once or twice, but it’s not a major concern.
Some have criticized the largely “closed-world” system in Knack. Admittedly, it does look as if some degree of exploration will be possible but it’s quickly revealed that this is not the case. There are several cracked walls and not-so-obvious corridors here and there where Knack can collect both sun stones and various pieces of gadgetry (more on this later), but never can Knack truly roam around off the beaten path. Levels are composed in a highly linear fashion, though the environments are lush enough to keep one from feeling trapped within some sort of existential “room.” I for one don’t see the lack of freedom as a point of criticism. I understand that people expect more from their games in 2013, but when I think of Knack as homage to games past, it really doesn’t bother me.
Some would argue the lack of innovation is what holds it back, but an open, free-roaming world in a brawler accomplishes only 2 things: endless fights with grunts (or alternatively vast expanses of empty screens, depending on how respawning is handled), and a de-emphasis on combat. Quick and simple fights demand a sort of fast-paced gameplay. With large areas to explore, the brevity of these fights would lose purpose leaving gamers to question their inclusion in the first place. A straightforward game, if well-made (as Knack is) can be a fine treat, but once simpler elements are combined with more complex ones, a level of tedium is likely to develop. For me, I’m content to finish up one area and move on to the next, not worrying too very much about what I may have missed.
Along the way, Knack will inevitably stumble upon small items, parts of larger gadgets. Always hidden, some of these pieces are harder to find than others, especially once the levels begin to ramp up with tougher foes in greater numbers. These items, presented as “1 of 7” or something similar, offer Knack the opportunity to equip himself with various objects to further manipulate his environment, such as sun stones releasing relics whenever his health is low. I can’t comment on their usefulness yet, but I suspect that The Watchman pretty much nailed their purpose in his review; to allow the player to re-play the game using these various enhancements for a slightly different experience. I wanted to go ahead and put together a review based on my time spent with Knack, but as I dig deeper I’ll be sure to include an addendum.
I’ve also failed to spend any time with the multiplayer mode, though I do now own a pair of DualShock 4’s. Like the beat em ups of yesteryear, I imagine cooperative play is highly rewarding. I haven’t quite figured out how the game will handle the issue of only one “Knack” being in existence, however I’m sure my son will be ready to tackle some co-op play soon enough.
My other minor yet staunch criticism aside from Knack’s lack of platforming elements concerns how Knack’s size is handled. There’s a world of potential to be explored having a size-shifting character but the game doesn’t quite seem to have found its place in this release. Whenever tasks arise in which Knack must be either large or small to complete, there’s either an in-game mechanic devised to temporarily decrease his size (stealth mode) or enough relics are lying around to beef him up considerably. Oh, and it’s not an option to simply abandoned loose relics; they’re automatically assimilated as Knack passes by. The game also doesn’t want the player to have too much fun as roving megalith with unchecked strength, so periodically Knack is forced to shed a substantial amount of his relics to start up a machine or open up a door or otherwise negotiate a similar contrivance. As these patterns become more apparent during gameplay the overall effect of changing sizes is effectively dampened; it doesn’t take too many stages to realize that the game largely mandates Knack’s given size at a given time.
On the other hand, the designers have figured out a few clever ways to deal with Knack’s nature as a collection of discrete parts. In one level in particular a “light” is “draining” Knack of his relics, effectively reducing both Knack’s strength and stamina. The player has to get a little inventive when it comes to avoiding the vampiric “lights” and replenishing relics whenever possible. Perhaps we’ll see further development of these ideas in the future. It’s an ambitious element to introduce, but it does come up a little short.
I probably don’t even need to mention the graphics, but in the interest of topping out at over 2000 words, I think I will! And why wouldn’t I mention them? Mostly because they’re as great as you’ve been led to believe. Earlier when I said that Knack may not be remembered for its visual superiority, I was going on the tradition of more fantasy, animation-geared graphics being passed over in favor of sweat, wrinkles, stubble, and other factors pertaining to reality that gamers tend to most publicly acknowledge.
The fact is Knack is an extraordinary looking game. Among the most standout features are Knack’s floating collection of relics, each moving on its own yet also as part of a single entity. It’s very impressive to see this conglomeration of hundreds (if not more, at times?) of moving parts, each with its own touch of detail as well. The remainder of Knack is also well done even if we have seen it before. Many of the details put into light and color add a touch of fantasy to the game such as the brilliant rocks seen intertwined with the more generic looking stone backdrops.
Knack will probably be shoved aside by most current gaming enthusiasts, but I hope that its status as one of the few PS4 games currently available will curtail the judgment of some nay-sayers. It probably could’ve done more to push the boundaries of a beat em up / platformer hybrid instead of the enhancements it aimed for, but overall it’s a solid game that’ll be a nice foundation to a “Knack 2″ in a couple of years. Knack may fail to catch the attraction of PS4 early adopters but it’s very cool to see something like this come out alongside one of the most anticipated console launches in years. Us fans of all that’s come and gone may just have a lot to look forward to if Knack is indicative of even a smaller path that Sony is willing to travel down.
Reviewed by The Cubist
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