Developers: SCE Japan Studio
Publishers: Sony Computer Entertainment
It was a statement of intent that the first game Sony revealed for their brand spanking new console, the PS4, came in the form of Knack. Here was a next-gen console being introduced with a game that looked -- in terms of form and function rather than aesthetics -- a little bit retro, alluding perhaps to the heyday of the PSOne, and reminding the assembled viewers that gaming is for everyone. The cartoonish platformer seemed like a throwback to the days when Naughty Dog's Playstation mascot was a marsupial rather than a rugged adventurer with perfect stubble. It was a legacy pitch, and a spotlight for the PS4's architect, and the designer of Knack itself -- Mark Cerny.
It looks intriguing -- ooooh, we said, particles! -- and we're always up for new IPs. The coming together of Sony Japan and Cerny himself (who, let's remember, has worked extensively with the likes of Crash, Spyro, and Ratchet) is a little dream team-esque, and in amongst serious, mature, franchise titles such as Infamous: Second Son and Killzone: Shadow Fall there's room for a newcomer to steal the spotlight for the mass market. The PS4 is going to need a family-friendly pack-in too, and Knack is set to be it.
The trouble is, it really doesn't look or feel terribly next-gen at all. Knack himself is the star of the show: an anthropomorphic relic that has been awakened to fend off a bunch of Earth-threatening goblins and save humanity. It's Saturday morning cartoon stuff, and that's actually awesome. There's plenty of room for colourful games stuffed with character.
Knack himself is a handsome devil. His critterish natural form is almost impossibly cute in his earnest seriousness, largely thanks to his facial expressions and comedy eyebrows. He's a stealthy chap when in his smaller form, skittering about invisible to lasers, and adept at sneaking through small passageways and ventilation shafts. Our demo jumped between a various levels without any real explanation, but one had us infiltrating a goblin base of some sort, and at the touch of a button Knack can switch between his combat-ready beefier form, and his stealthy alter-ego.
It's in his expansive, larger form that he truly comes alive. A swirling mass of individual nuggets of rock or crystal or ice, Knack is a bit of a feast for the eyes. Everything looks a little bit simplistic in terms of aesthetics, but SCEJ have ensured that every last visible line and dot is crystal clear. Knack is a clean, sharp-looking game, and as you smash up crystal or stalagmites to make Knack's body swell in size, you appreciate the work that's gone into making our hero very distinctive indeed.
Each of the levels in the demo mainly consisted of smacking goblins upside the head, occasionally pausing to throw a car at a helicopter or punch a tank until it exploded, and Knack has a few little tricks up his sleeve, with a bunch of deployable special moves at his service such as super strength, which allows him to pick up large objects such as cars and dish out more damage with his fists, and a particularly striking whirlwind attack that sees him spinning about at great speed, flinging his particles outwards into a giant twister and engulfing his enemies in a tornado.
But shorn of context , Knack seemed a little shallow. The combat is predicated on mashing a single button, occasionally nudging the right stick to dodge out of the way of an attack that's been heavily telegraphed more often than not. The fixed camera was one of the biggest annoyances, in all honesty, and we kept accidentally flicking the right stick in an effort to change the viewpoint, forgetting that we were stuck with the viewpoint that we were given.
But Knack himself seems to be a little underdeveloped. We could artificially grow the creature in size to a certain extent, hitting a little harder, and being able to take more damage as we did so, but it didn't really make a difference. In the levels where we needed to smash up tanks, we'd start off big enough to smash up tanks, there was no real strategy to the gameplay at all and, after just a couple of minutes, we got pretty bored.
What we played, though, was a simple showcase floor demo. It would be churlish of us to consign a game to a shrug of the shoulders after just a ten minute slice of action, but there just wasn't enough evidence of any substance to be of any real excitement. When big Knack drops all of his particles to become little Knack, and then those particles come rushing through the level to reverse the process at the tap of a button you'll be impressed the first time you see it. You'll grin widely the first time you whip up a storm with bits and pieces of your own body because it's really cool. The central premise at the heart of Knack is really cool, but we need to see some more imaginative use of it please.
Here's the elevator pitch: this is a game where you play a little guy -- Knack -- who's hulking alter-ego can make himself bigger and more powerful by smashing things to bits, and then absorbing those bits! That's an amazing concept. It looks really cool. So where's the destruction modelling? Why is everything so horribly linear? Why can't I destroy anything other than designated crystals/icicles?
Yes, it's a family game. No, it's not being pitched towards "hardcore" gamers. But we've seen such astounding titles for universal audiences that Cerny and co. really need to step up to the plate and deliver something fundamentally innovative. If there's something like it in Knack, we haven't seen it yet.