Quick Look: Knack

Jeff samples Knack's punching and platforming but wonders if having "My Sharona" on loop is a step too far.

Drew Scanlon on Google+
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Giant Bomb Review


Knack Review

  • PS4

Knack is little more than a tedious slog.

With new console launches, there is a general understanding that a certain variety of game types must be available during those launch periods to try and rope in as many specific audiences as possible. For the PlayStation 4, Killzone: Shadow Fall would be your requisite war game, Need for Speed Rivals fits well enough into the car-shaped hole left by DriveClub's delay, and for families looking for a simple, colorful, generally cheerful experience to play with younger kids, there is Knack. This action-platformer from Sony's Japan Studio seems tailor-made to fit a particular audience's needs. And that's precisely what's wrong with Knack: it feels more like an obligation met out of necessity than a game anyone would actually want to play. That obligatory vibe permeates every aspect of Knack's design, from its coherent-yet-dreadfully-dull story, to its rote combat and platforming mechanics. Technologically speaking, there are areas where Knack certainly shows off some of the PlayStation 4's power, but at best, that makes it a competent tech demo, and not much of a game.

Meet Knack. Knack kind of sucks.
Meet Knack. Knack kind of sucks.

The titular Knack is a being comprised entirely of mysterious "relics." Relics are the game's shorthand for its especially nebulous brand of MacGuffin, an ancient power that exists in this strange world inhabited by both humans and goblins, who appear to be regularly at odds with one another. Relics serve as an all-purpose power source for both societies, and Knack is the construction of a magnanimous scientist who then strangely sets about having Knack kill anything that causes humanity problems. In this case, it's a combination of rebellious goblins, a blandly diabolical industrialist bent on world domination, and some other scattered mysterious forces that the game never invests much effort in explaining.

If I'm dismissive of Knack's attempts at storytelling or characterization, it's because they're terrible. The humans Knack is surrounded by--the decidedly Jonny Quest-like trio of a smart, if overly ambitious scientist, a hunky blonde adventurer, and a boy assistant who doesn't really do much except get into trouble and spout occasional morals to the story--are all bland archetypes that are as forgettable to look at as they are in personality. There are some troubling notions at the center of the story that make these characters particularly awful; namely their seemingly blithe attitude toward the long-persecuted goblin race's rebellion (it's never explained who, exactly, started this conflict in the first place), and total lack of regard for the destruction Knack causes when they send him off to kill stuff. But even with those elements disregarded, the bigger issue is that nobody in this game has enough personality to make them worth paying attention to. Every character is a weak caricature or stereotype hastily sketched into a script that appears only mildly interested in doing anything but setting up simple scenarios in which Knack may wreak some manner of havoc.

It doesn't help that Knack is the least-developed character of them all. All you'll remember about him is his incongruously thunderous voice, his deeply limited cache of bad one-liners, and his junk-art-sculpture-of-a-Muppet character design. Regarding that last bit, Knack's body consists of varying numbers of relics pulled together into a wireframe of a character. That size shrinks and grows as the game requires, leaving you a tiny, skittering creature in some cases, or a hulking, apocalyptically destructive monster in others, but none of his forms are very memorable. Knack is neither cute nor especially terrifying. He just sort of is. In fact, one of the strangest things about Knack is just how deeply self-conscious the game's developers seem to be when it comes to Knack's likability. The game frequently digs through the lost-and-found bin of computer animated movie cliches in some misguided attempt to present Knack as the cleverest, most likable video game hero, but the character himself has no identifiable personality. All he does is spout hoary pre-battle quips and generically heroic platitudes, while the human characters around him make all the actual (usually terrible) decisions. Even the closing credits reek of minor desperation, as they feature Knack in various forms dancing to The Heavy's "How You Like Me Now." It's so out-of-whack with what meager level of interest the game and character actually provide that it borders on tragic.

If anything, the closest analog I can draw for Knack is Poochie the Dog. He's the sort of personality that comes off as born of boardroom groupthink, a creature meant only to hit specific personality traits that test well with specific demographics for the sake of achieving appropriate levels of audience engagement and subsequent merchandising. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the game itself feels just as coldly constructed as well, offering up a brutally dull, completely repetitive slog toward a metaphorical fireworks factory that never, ever arrives.

Knack's special armors and stealth abilities are briefly touched upon, then quickly forgotten.
Knack's special armors and stealth abilities are briefly touched upon, then quickly forgotten.

You certainly can see the makings of something more interesting in the early goings, if nothing else. Though the tutorial level's awkward info-dump of backstory is obnoxious--the scene literally opens with the doctor starting an explanation with "As you all know..." before talking for several minutes about the things all the people in the room presumably already know--the initial introduction to Knack's mechanics and abilities gives you the impression the game might grow into something. You're presented with Knack's basic attacks, his ability to absorb additional relics to become larger, and his special attack meter which comes from cracking and absorbing the energy from special "sun stones." You play with these initial offerings, and think that maybe, just maybe, this might evolve into something creative and entertaining. That never happens.

Instead, Knack falls into a simplistic, yet oddly frustrating rhythm that it never bothers to try to break out of. Every level consists of the same basic combat scenarios over and over again, with Knack only able to use his same three-punch combo, his one jump attack, and his few sun stone attacks in constant repetition in clearing small area after small area of bad guys. At least your opponents have some variety to them in their attack patterns, but what little enjoyment one might wring from frequently studying new enemies is all but obliterated when you realize just how often you'll die in this game.

The challenge level on the default difficulty is surprisingly unforgiving. One or two hits is usually all it takes to kill Knack, and the game's checkpoint system is shockingly infrequent, often forcing you to redo multiple battles again and again as you try to get back to where it was that you died in the first place. Tuning the game down to easy alleviates this, but arguably too much, as by that point you're basically just running into a room, punching a bunch of goblins or robots or whatever, and then continuing to do that until you run out of game. What few jump puzzles and environmental traps there are don't offer much challenge to speak of, and the only other abilities Knack ever earns--namely ice and wood armors, and a crystalized "stealth" form--are used so sparingly that they scarcely register over the din of endless enemy smashing.

As an aside, you can also attempt to combat the game's difficulty somewhat by including another player, but the game is only partially retrofitted for cooperative play. A second "robo" Knack is playable on-screen, but the camera scarcely pays any attention to them. If they wander off-screen, it's up to the player to find their way back into primary Knack's camera view, which is obviously not quite ideal.

There's no denying that Knack's visuals are technically proficient, but they're also deeply lacking in personality.
There's no denying that Knack's visuals are technically proficient, but they're also deeply lacking in personality.

The single, solitary argument one could make in Knack's favor is that of its visuals. Indeed, Knack certainly appears to take decent advantage of the PS4's increased horsepower. Most notably, Knack himself, with all his various pieces and doo-dads, is initially a nifty thing to look at. Elsewhere, enemies and environmental textures are super high-res, with only rare frame rate dips or other animation glitches popping up every now and again to distract you. But for all its technical prowess, Knack remains strangely dull to look at. As much as one might appreciate the sheer power on display, Knack's artistic direction is deeply lacking. Human and goblin models look recycled from some previously unseen direct-to-video animated trainwreck, while the world that surrounds Knack's adventure consists primarily of the same lava, ice, and industrial scenery so many also-ran platformers have already mined to death. Other than Knack himself, nothing about Knack's art design offers up one interesting, or even vaguely creative idea. It's all stuff you've seen before, except now in 1080p.

I suppose that's a succinct enough description for the entirety of Knack, really. Here is a game that dutifully balls up tired cliches and flat, unimaginative game design just for the sake of filling a presumed-to-be requisite slot in a launch lineup. It does the barest minimum necessary to craft a functional, if utterly flavorless morsel for families hungry for something to feed their shiny new PlayStation 4. Some might argue that, because it achieves this meager goal, Knack is good enough. It should be acceptable, given that it is largely devoid of bugs, blemishes, or other things that might otherwise taint what its developers have set out to create. I'd argue back that when the only thing you can really say in a game's favor is that it isn't functionally broken, then it's probably got far more deep-seated issues working against it. Knack is a bad game not because it doesn't work, but because the way it's intended to work is devoid of anything resembling personality, creativity, or even a basic level of excitement. It's a product in the most soulless sense of the word, and it's not deserving of you or your family's time.

Alex Navarro on Google+