Genre: Action / Platformer
Reviewer: Marcus Way
Overall: 6 = Fair
The universal draw of a good platformer makes it one of the most important genres in gaming, and its wide-ranging appeal often finds it to be amongst the first titles released on a new system. Even if the genre is routinely eclipsed by market favorites, whether fighters or first-person shooters, it remains a cornerstone of any system’s library. The PlayStation family has a long line of popular series that have taken up the banner for their respective systems, such as Crash Bandicoot, Sly Cooper, and Ratchet & Clank. Knack is SCE Japan Studio’s latest effort to join such hallowed ranks, but while it looks great and introduces some likable characters, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Knack opens up with a bang. A heavily guarded research facility is suddenly assaulted by a band of goblins. Their barrage of arrows is no match for the security force’s machine guns, but their retreat proves to be a ruse to distract the guards while they call up their latest invention: tanks. This surprising turn of events, showing that the goblins are more disciplined and advanced than initially thought, spurs the unveiling of a new weapon by the lab’s research team. This weapon is a collection of the ancient relics that humans use as a source of power, with the slight difference of these having been given sentience. The result is Knack, a creature that can gather nearby relics to grow larger and stronger as well as power nearby structures by relinquishing some of the collected relics. He can also absorb sun stones to unleash special moves in combat as well as merge with the elements to gain additional powers, making him man’s best hope against the deadly goblins.
It will come as a quick surprise to many that Knack can be a surprisingly difficult game. Much like the first PlayStation’s launch platformer Rayman, the lush visuals and creative design of the main character suggest a seemingly whimsical adventure that is in fact a rough slog fraught with peril. For all of his powerful abilities, Knack is rarely resilient enough to withstand more than a few blows. His enemies will attack with all manner of weaponry, from swords to explosives, and even in his stronger form, he can only take a few hits before exploding into pieces. Enemy encounters often follow a predictable pattern in their approach, with three or four enemies in rooms separated by paths that have a few more enemies blocking the way. The encounters themselves can be quite varied, though, and that is down to the game’s devilish attack patterns.
Knack can launch a multi-target long-range attack or close in by double jumping, evading, or rolling up and hurling himself to slam into enemies; he can also attack by punching, ground stomping, or hitting them with relic pieces as he whirls around like a tornado. Enemies rarely make it easy, however. Instead, one enemy will attack on the ground shortly before another launches a spread of arrows right into the player’s trajectory; alternatively, leaping and evading arrow fire in mid-air will be met by another enemy who is already halfway through their attack in order to hit the player before they can reach the ground and react. Even small creatures prove to be nuisances, since they can change direction in the middle of an attack, adjusting to meet Knack’s counter before the hit lands. Other enemies drop explosives when they die, proving fatal even in death, while others cause even more problems by hurling themselves at Knack and exploding as they close in. The elemental aspects add some flavor to combat, but not much: if melded with wood or ice, for example, Knack is tougher in battle but burns when caught on fire and will lose his shielding if he stays outdoors for too long, but either state actually differs very little from his standard form. Given the enemy’s nasty tendency to time their attacks just so, I’d say that the challenge is too much for younger players, though that seems to be the group who would most enjoy Knack’s tough-guy attitude and adventurous friends. Players of moderate experience will find the default difficulty setting sufficiently challenging, but it will have to be dropped to give younger players a fighting chance.
For the first half or so of the game’s 13 chapters, what’s on offer is enough to make for a fairly solid platformer. As the adventure continues, though, it becomes too repetitive. There are some interesting twists along the way, such as the dastardly engineer Viktor who tries to hinder Knack so he can sell more of his security bots, and an interesting revelation about the nature of the goblins. While these mainly serve to move the game along rather than add any meaningful narrative depth, though it tries at times, I was actually fine with that—the mechanics suggest a brawler, and that’s what players get. What isn’t fine is repeating the same maneuvers ad nauseam because there’s nothing else to do. Platformers are tricky in this regard because they need especially good level design or especially good combat to make the genre’s inherent repetitiveness palatable or, in some cases, advantageous, but Knack has neither. It isn’t that the game is bad; it’s just lacking, as enemies are generic, the environments look good but offer little to do, and the actual platforming is limited. The game doesn’t excel in any one area, and as a result, it has nothing to fall back on whenever it comes up short. It doesn’t have the tight level design of a Mario, the varied arsenal of a Jak and Daxter, nor the sheer imagination of a Rayman.
The game manages to convey a wonderful sense of weight, though, which is important given that players control what amounts to a collection of rocks. Whenever Knack delivers a final blow, the game slows down to emphasize the impact of relics against face. It’s also very satisfying to punch through the small pockets of weakened walls and seeing the stones topple over to uncover hidden treasure. Tucked away behind the rubble are boxes of relics, sun stones, parts for gadgets, or Crystal Relics. Items have a rarity rating, and that’s because they can be combined to enhance Knack in a variety of ways, such as by boosting his strength during combos, collecting sun stones from defeated enemies, and detecting nearby secret rooms. Crystal Relics can be combined to bestow a special form, such as Sunstone Knack and Vampire Knack, for subsequent playthroughs. These hiding spots are frequently easy to spot—and access, given the general straightforward approach to platforming—but only loot hounds will want to collect them all. There is one particularly cool element to collecting items, and that’s the ability to swap out a chest’s item for one found by a friend on PSN who has accessed the same chest. Bulking up makes for harder punches and more satisfying brawls, but only for a few moments, as larger enemies quickly appear to offset Knack’s size and strength advantage. The game also frequently finds inconvenient means of shrinking him back down to his weaker state, just as players have gotten used to smacking around all the little tedious enemies that give small Knack such trouble. Then it’s back to desperately dodging every attack in the hopes of avoiding that fateful blow that could send him back to one of the unfortunate checkpoints that frequently require going back through extended portions again and refighting frustrating encounters. On the upside, there is a co-op mode with drop-in/drop-out support that allows a friend to control Robo Knack, a sidekick that can attack enemies and heal our hero. The first player remains the star of the show, so the partner will have to keep up or be warped back to their friend’s side, but at least some of the load is lightened. Given some of the fights, any help is appreciated.
Knack is a decent but limited action platformer that becomes too repetitive too quickly. The graphics are sharp, the voice acting is good, and the fundamentals are sound, but it never develops into anything substantial. In terms of launch platformers, it’s more Clockwork Knight than Super Mario 64—nice to look at and play in short spurts but destined to be lost amongst a sea of superior titles.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)