Despite its cutesy exterior, Knack is super difficult. It's frustrating. It's awkward. It goes on and ruddy on and never seems to end.
And that makes it a great PS4 launch game for two reasons.
Firstly, it's reminiscent of the original PlayStation, and rock-hard platformers like Rayman, Spyro and Crash Bandicoot. Sony has said how it wants the PS4 to be like the PS1; an open platform that will foster a large variety of games. Launching it with a throwback game like Knack is a nod to that vision.
Secondly, Knack's difficulty curve seems inspired by indie darlings like Hotline Miami and Limbo. You have to die a lot and retry. It throws you unexpected curve balls. Again, it's exemplary of what Sony wants its console to be about. The company's been cultivating a strong relationship with independent developers; sealing exclusivity deals and promoting the PSN Store as an uncensored place for people to sell their games.
That Knack has taken so many cues from independents shows just how close Sony has its ear to the ground. It clearly knows its indies. Knack tells me that, as well as being open to the financial benefits of the independent scene, Sony's proud to take some creative lessons from it as well.
So, I like Knack a lot. There are plenty of times where it's made me throw the controller on the floor or shut it off in a paddy, but for the most part, it's a brave and surprising platformer that, thankfully for an old dog like me, doesn't patronise.
"This", as the PS4 marketing slogan reads "is for the players."
You play the eponymous Knack, a small, mechanical thingamajig that can increase in size by collecting objects from around the environment. In some levels, you might smash a block of ice, say, and assimilate the fragments into your body. In others, you can bulk up using chunks of metal or pieces of wood. It's an interesting idea and the way you can see every individual piece of Knack is visually exciting, but the size mechanic is never really set loose.
The game decides when you can or can't get bigger. It's not like you can smash a car and suddenly expand into a gigantic Car-Knack. It's always at set points. It reminds me of The Thing on PS2 where, no matter how often you tested your guys for infection, they'd always turn at pre-scripted moments in the story. It's not down to you.
And as such, Knack's central mechanic is kind of useless. When you're small you fight small enemies. When you're big, you fight big enemies. And so, there's never really any advantage or disadvantage in changing size. The combat is always the same - you always have to dodge and parry attacks, regardless of how big you are - and aside from some different visual spectacle, nothing is really added to Knack by its chief conceit. You may as well remain the same size throughout, since the game always bends to wrong-foot you.
The combat is still good, though. You press X to jump and square to attack, and combine them together to outmanoeuvre various - and increasingly difficult - combinations of enemies. Not to keep throwing in comparisons, because I don't want Knack to sound derivative, but it reminds me of DmC: Devil May Cry, which doesn't have enemies that are difficult by themselves but instead locks you in a room with an awkward team of them.
In Knack, you're often facing two baddies who have ranged attacks and one super strong melee guy. The skill is in either avoiding bullets while you take out the brute or quickly dispatching the long-range fellas while dodging any axe swings.
It's never easy. I repeat, it's never easy. Don't be fooled by Knack's child-friendly pretence. Like it's titular hero, this is a game that looks like a pushover but quickly gets very tough indeed. You can take maybe two hits before you die. And when you do, you're sent way further back than you'd ever expect.
The checkpoint system is relentless. Again, I'm reminded of Hotline Miami, where you have to keep dying and restarting from the start until you either figure out precisely the right solution or go in arms flailing and just get lucky. It's a hell of an endurance test. If you want a PS4 game your kids can play, you honestly might be better off giving them Killzone: Shadow Fall.
The only childlike thing about Knack is its story, which reads and plays like a Pixar film. Goblins have been attacking human cities so it's down to Knack, and the friendly team of scientists who created him, to stop them. It's simple and coherent, and suitably terse to keep the action ticking along.
But it's also surprisingly humourless. While certainly light-hearted, Knack doesn't contain as many giggles as it feels like it should. I doubt it'll even make toddlers smile. For an ostensible kid's game, it's often quite flat.
And I have a personal gripe with it as well. Towards the end, the female villain, Katrina, hops inside a huge robotic mech to fight Knack during a boss battle. And unlike the other mechs, which are all straightforward and covered in guns, hers is pink and has long hair, and feet styled in the shape of high-heels. This is precisely what Anita Sarkeesian was talking about in the latest Feminist Frequency, whereby artists use stereotypical female visual markers in place of giving women real character.
Why can't her mech just be like the others? Why draw attention to the fact she's a woman, like she's different somehow, like that her gender is her defining characteristic? I feel a bit first year uni-student dragging Laura Mulvey into a game about shape-shifting robots, but seriously developers, cut this out.
Anyway, I still like Knack. Despite the flaws I've mentioned already, and the awful soundtrack, which just loops the same four instrumentals over and over, I admire it for being so tough. I went into it expecting a brief, easy game made for children and instead got slapped round the face by a platformer that's difficult and long.
With Sony looking to close the gap between the mainstream and the fringe, it only feels right that one of its PS4 launch games is directly inspired by the indies. Knack is a platformer cum beat 'em up in the vein of Super Meat Boy and Don't Look Back. If it's place at the top of the PS4 launch gets it in front of mainline consumers then hell, I'm all for this game.
- Gameplay: 7/10 - The combat is hard hard hard, which is a huge plus, but the central size mechanic doesn't really work.
- Graphics: 8/10 - The characters and monsters all look like something from a Pixar movie and the way Knack's components are all mapped individually is extraordinary. The environments are a little dull, though.
- Sound: 5/10 - Voice-acting is all good (Jennifer Hale in particular, as always) but the music repeats itself too often.
- Writing: 6/10 - The story makes sense which, sadly, is not something you can say for all videogames. But it's joke-free and plain, and there's that awful bloody mech at the end.
- Replay value: 7/10 - This depends on your tolerance. For some Knack will be so frustrating that they won't even finish it once. For others, it'll keep them occupied for hours on end, as they try to best every level and finish every challenge. It depends on your taste.
- Overall: 8/10 - A difficult and surprising platformer which illustrates the thinking behind the PS4. Knack isn't what you expect.
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