Knack blew minds when it was unveiled early in 2013 and seemed like a throwback to a bygone era where you could have a mascot be family-friendly, but not come off as just for kids – something all-ages akin to Pixar characters rather than Barney. With SCE Japan’s top-notch pedigree behind it, the game seemed destined to be the killer app for the retail side of the system and then the first reviews hit and scores ranged from fairly low to a bit higher in the 70 or so range. Seeing such relatively low marks from a first-party launch game is a rarity, so I knew I had to make Knack an essential purchase just to see if the game was an underachiever or if it just wasn’t quite getting the respect it deserves.
The story is certainly nothing too amazing – Knack is an invention of a scientist and he’s able to either get bigger or smaller depending on the situation thanks to relics being used to form his body. They’re basically building blocks with odd shapes and can be used to make him gigantic and topple small enemies with ease, or reduce his size to help his human friends get around at the expense of losing that sense of power that came with all of the size. The core gameplay is about the same depending on how big you are, although you do a lot more damage in your bigger form. You’ve got a long-range jumping attack that does half the damage of the close-range punch, but your choice of each attack can make a big difference on your progress.
While the game isn’t exactly tough, it can be a challenge due to somewhat poor checkpoint-placement. Generally, you’ll get a checkpoint for every half-dozen screens of battle or platforming, and a guaranteed one after a small cutscene. Now when you’re big, you’re given a life bar that has some size to it and can absorb at least a few deaths. The right stick enables defensive attacks and if you play it safe with long-range stuff, you can generally take out a lot of enemies without taking too much damage as long as you get into the zone. Going in with all short-range is much riskier, but can work out well if you learn how to properly use the defensive roll against all kinds of enemies.
The checkpoint system usually works well, but does cause some frustration when you wind up being one screen away from a checkpoint and then have to redo things over and over. It makes the game plod on and exposes the formula quite a bit. You fight an enemy to learn the pattern then fight a group of them before fighting a new enemy, doing some platforming, and facing groups of the enemy types you’ve encountered to that point. It’s not a bad formula, but it can wear thin after even a few hours of play. There are ways to mix things up though. You’ve got super powers that can be activated by gathering up enough sun energy. A low-end attack takes up one full ring built up to execute, mid-range takes two, and a super-duper mega power attack takes up three rings to explode. It’s a chore to actually gain the sun power needed to get the attacks powered up and then using them really just amounts to getting rid of one room full of enemies that you could’ve gotten rid of anyway with smarter play.
The game controls really well and everything’s responsive, but the platforming is tougher than it should be due to poor shadow work on Knack. Everything in the game world casts a shadow that should…except him, and it makes judging jumps very difficult. Now with smaller ones, you know you can make it just by going pretty close to the edge but there are also some cliff-like drops you can’t predict. Those can mean having to retry more areas needlessly, which once again pads out the playtime and makes things more tiring than they should be.
Visually, Knack has some impressive visual flourishes at times but tends to wind up looking like a PS3 game with better reflections than usual. The human character designs resemble Pixar characters a lot and that makes them at least endearing visually. The environments have a lot of detail to them and look pristine, but aren’t likely to amaze you in a world of PS3-era Ratchet and Clank games being dazzling and also throwing a lot of lighting effects at you at one time. Movement animation is pretty good, but not as impressive as seeing all of the relics build up on Knack’s body. No matter how many times you see it, it will stun you for a second and then you just get used to stomping around like Godzilla – only much faster.
Knack’s music is about what you’d expect for a platformer. It’s easy to listen to but doesn’t really stand out where you think about the game whenever you hear it. There is no iconic Super Mario Bros. 1-1-style songs here, but everything’s fun to hear during the game, it just isn’t amazing. The sound effects are similarly unspectacular, but suitable. The voice work is quite good, but the characters themselves aren’t all that great. They’re all archetypes, so the plot is fairly predictable, but the acting is pretty decent. Knack is the only standout character, and he comes off as a kid-friendly one-liner machine that reminds one of a ’90s icon with ‘tude.
Knack winds up being a pretty good game that definitely falls short of its potential. The plot is nothing memorable, although Knack himself is amusing. The characters are definitely going to be enjoyed more by kids because they’re too simplistic for adults to really get behind. Fortunately, the gameplay is pretty good even if it is hampered by repetition making it a chore to get through at times. There’s very little to really do in the game even with super powers, so it winds up lacking the appeal of something like the Ratchet and Clank games where you’ve at least got a weapon mechanic you can really sink some time into. Knack winds up better off as a rental that’s enjoyed for a few days, although completionists may be compelled to play through it multiple times to find all of the hidden items. At $60, it’s hard to recommend for a full-priced purchase, but it’s a great pickup in the $30-$40 range.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
This review is based on a retail copy of Knack for the PlayStation 4 provided by Sony Computer Entertainment.
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