Knack is a simple, stripped-down platformer. Sadly it was stripped of the semblance of being good game.
It's unfortunate that the 3D-platforming genre has fallen by the wayside over the last generation. Obviously Nintendo has been going strong in that department, and every now and then a new Ratchet and Clank game drops, but the last 8 years weren't as welcoming to new additions as the PS2/Gamecube era. But now we have Knack, joining the great pantheon of console launch platformers by being the PS4's premiere platformer. It's the directorial project from industry veteran Mark Cerny, who had a hand in creating the beloved Crash Bandicoot, Ratchet and Clank, and Jak and Daxter franchises, among others. I admittedly went into Knack with certain expectations because of Cerny's involvement, though I wouldn't say they were outrageously high. But sadly, they couldn't even be met by what Knack actually has to offer. While there is certainly some great talent behind the game's creation, the game itself is an unambitious and unremarkable exercise in tedium and frustration.
Knack himself is made up of ancient relics from some sort of lost civilization, and is the creation of a doctor who discovered these relics years ago. Over the course of the story, you, as Knack, must travel with the doctor, his young assistant and a bold, square-jawed adventurer, none of whose names I can remember, in an effort to stop the war between the humans and Goblins and to unlock an ancient vault containing some sort of super relic. This is all the while the doctor's pointy-chinned millionaire inventor rival, Victor, races against him to be the first one to open the vault. His name was easy to remember, because "Victor" is such an obvious bad-guy name. The story is typical fare for a game like this, but it is also oddly serious most of the time. Knack is in dire need of some humor to lend it its own identity, but it never really pulls it off, making the major plot points and bits of character development there are fall flat.
Knack's gameplay is sadly as equally banal as its story. The mechanics of the game are dead simple, which isn't inherently bad until you realize that they never evolve beyond what you're introduced to in the game's opening levels. You run through the levels, attacking enemies with a single attack combo and dodging out of the way of incoming attacks, sometimes using one of three special power moves using your sunstone energy. The combat is responsive and impactful, making it fun in itself, there's just barely anything to it, and everything surrounding it is about as uninspired as it gets. The level design is heavily restricted and confined to narrow passages, even in the outdoor areas, save for some poorly hidden "secret" areas that contain power-up parts or sunstone energy. It's somewhat reminiscent of the early Crash Bandicoot games, except without the charm, personality or varied design. Every combat scenario follows a very arena-like formula where you are confined to fighting in one "room" against a specific set of enemies until you defeat them and are allowed passage to the next area. There are only a handful of moments throughout where the game attempts to deviate from the stagnant formula that it establishes early on.
Knack's ability to grow larger and stronger as he collects more relics was touted as the game's big draw, which sounds cool on paper, but the way it's actually handled in the game makes it seems like a throw-away gimmick. There are a few missable relics, but there's nothing truly dynamic about this mechanic. Knack will always be as big as he is required to be for the given level or story beat. Even as he grows, the gameplay remains the same. You can completely steam-roll enemies that gave you trouble when you were smaller, which can be satisfying, but you mostly just end up performing the same basic attacks on bigger enemies that take the place of the other ones. There are also a few points where you collect other materials, such as wood, ice, and metal, to gain size. But rather than doing something neat and introducing some elemental gameplay mechanics, all these really do is extend your health bar and allow you to solve some insultingly rudimentary "puzzles".
At least there's a surprisingly large variety of enemies to take on, which seems like the game's attempt to mitigate lack of gameplay variety by having you learn the attack patterns and vulnerability periods of a ton of different foes. It makes things considerably more interesting than they should be since you face different enemy combinations in most scenarios. Knowing which enemy to take on first, when to block and when to attack is crucial to surviving.
Knack is a deceptively difficult game on the normal difficulty, sometimes frustratingly so. The combat is, at least. The platforming and puzzle aspects of Knack are so basic that they feel like an afterthought rather than key design points of the genre. The character can't take too many hits, though, and it's easy to get cocky and plow right into a a crowd of enemies rather than sit back and wait for them to attack first. This especially becomes a problem when you end up having to redo areas over and over due to the game's inconsistent checkpointing. Most of the time, checkpoints are indicated by a small cutscene showing the character just moving to the next section of the level, usually by performing some kind of jump or maneuver you can't do in-game. But you'll have to fight through 4 or 5 increasingly difficult combat scenarios before getting to the next one, and dying on the last one means you have to do them all again. And again. Oh, and again.
This wouldn't be as much of a problem if death in Knack was always fair. In most cases, if you die, it's your fault. The mechanics are responsive enough to let you know when you did something wrong. However, there were more than a few times where the dodge mechanic didn't really do anything and I got hit anyway, or where an out-of-range enemy still managed to melee me (this works both ways, at least). As the game goes on and tries to become a little more ambitious with its camera angles and obstacles, it's common for the sense of depth to become obscured, causing you punch at air while the enemy closes in for the kill, or to jump next to a platform rather than on it. Enemies attacking off-camera is common, as well. While the game is relatively bug-free, there are some bothersome design choices that further hinder what slight enjoyment there is to be extracted from it.
For whatever reason, Knack was the first game I decided to fully finish on the PS4, before the other, better titles got more attention. The simple nature of everything about the game has a certain allure to it, but it's also what makes it difficult to swallow as a whole. It's at least nice to look at. It's not technically outstanding, but it has a nice colorful art style, and it makes good use of the PS4's ability to render tons of particles. I actually found the game to be a bit fun in shorter doses, but playing for more than an hour at a time caused my interest to quickly wain. Knack's not an abomination by any means, but it's hard to recommend unless you're absolutely dying to play something only slightly resembling old-school 3D platformers.