Developers: Sony Japan Studio
Publishers: Sony Computer Entertainment
Mark Cerny. Architect not only of beloved IPs such as Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter, and Spyro the Dragon, but also of the PlayStation 4 itself. This smiling genteel man has been one of the most visible exponents of innovative design over the years, no more so than in the past twelve months as Sony had him take the stage time and time again to tell us that the PS4 was focused on one thing, and one thing only: games.
With such a litany of references and credits, and ably supported by Sony Japan Studio -- an outfit although sometimes lacking in execution and polish brought us the fantastic ideas behind games such as Gravity Rush and Tokyo Jungle -- when we learned that Cerny would be heading up a crack team of developers to produce something for the PS4, we all got rather excited.
And then Knack turned up.
Sure, Knack is pretty to look at. Constructed of chunks and shards of minerals and relics, the titular character is a wonderful sight to behold -- an impressive avatar to demonstrate the power in particle rendering and animation that the PlayStation 4 can bring to the table. He trots around brightly coloured landscapes, from ice caves to lava plateaus and gloriously realised, verdant temperate areas, with a fixed camera harking back to days gone by when we'd be controlling a sprightly marsupial on the PSOne. When you open chests stuffed with relic pieces, and Knack absorbs them into his form and swells in size, it's hard not to be a little impressed by the graphical trickery. The textures are gorgeous, the clean, Pixar-esque feel to it all is aesthetically delightful, and Knack at least looks the part.
The game starts well enough, too, with players guiding Knack through a series of laboratory testing rooms so his inventor can show Knack off to a bunch of assembled world leaders who are a little worried because they have a goblin invasion on their hands. It's a nifty little tutorial that does well to introduce players to the basic concepts underpinning the game as Dr. Vargas explains to his audience how Knack can attack and dodge and make use of Sunstones to turn himself into a whirlwind or perform a Hulk Smash.
But the game never really kicks on from there. Everything you need to know about Knack is given to you in the first twenty minutes, and what proceeds from then on is an array of linear arenas with varying colourful backdrops that see you reach an area, clear out the enemies, move on and repeat. Imagine a shoddy Dreamworks film tie-in that replicates the same mundane gameplay over and over again, but with the checkpointing and affinity for failure shared only by the likes of Dark Souls.
That might seem like an odd comparison, but Knack is a game that rewards thoughtful, conservative progress -- reading the telegraphing of enemy attacks, timing the awfully-implemented dodge early, and being economical with button presses and movement. The pretty colours and whimsical presentation belie a hardcore heart that punishes button-mashers and headless frenzy. But there's no evolution to this concept, nothing that really makes all of this toil worthwhile. You grow larger to smack bigger enemies upside the head, and the number of foes you'll fight increases, but that's about it. Occasionally, you might absorb environment-specific relics and fragments into your body -- Ice Knack will slowly melt in the sunlight, Crystal Knack can't be seen by security lasers -- but they impact the experience far less than one might like. There are good ideas here, they just don't really go anywhere.
I wondered if I was going mad, if I'd placed Nineties platforming titles on a pedestal, so I went back and played a few of them. There's a lot to Knack that's actually very similar to the original Crash Bandicoot and games such as Vectorman. But then I remembered that those games were bested in their own time by the Golden Age of Nintendo and Rare and that just because something is old doesn't mean that it's good. Knack ignores the last fifteen years of action-platforming history, and when stood against a game such as LEGO Marvel Super Heroes -- another game targeted towards a youthful audience, embracing local multiplayer, and geared around simple button inputs -- it resembles a repetitive, unimaginative, and hopelessly limited tech demo more than anything else.
Let's talk local multiplayer a little bit. Whereas Traveller's Tales give players the choice between dynamic splitscreen and fixed partitioning, Knack's fixed camera just stays rooted on Player 1. Player 2 takes control of Robo Knack, but is clearly an inferior citizen in that the camera doesn't really give a flying monkeys what they're up to. As well as being able to serve up bits of life to Real Knack, Player 2 also has the ignominy of often finding themselves being smacked to bits out of shot if you stray too far apart.
Still, at least the story is Pixar quality, right? Wrong. Instead we have hideously bland archetypes lacking a barest modicum of personality, a combat slave in Knack voiced in incongruously deep and gravelly fashion, and female characters that would make Bechdel and Butler weep. One of the female characters -- who happens to be smart and resourceful and an inventor herself -- quite literally pleads to be rescued. If you make it all of the way through to the final credits, you're greeted with the most ill-advised "comedy closer": Knack in various guises pulling shapes to The Heavy's "How You Like Me Now?" It's so horribly out of kilter that the cringe actually hurts; you feel bad for the little guy.
If we were reviewing Knack back in 1995 -- before Super Mario 64 wrote the book on how to make 3D platformers, before Super Meat Boy delivered a masterclass in punishing gameplay married to perfect controls, before Braid or Limbo or Portal 2D or LEGO or LittleBigPlanet or Ratchet and Clank -- we might have forgiven this game its resolute simplicity, lack of ideas, punitive difficulty spikes, sloppy mechanics, uninspired world, mediocre level design and endless repetition. But this is 2013 and Knack costs £50, so we won't.
- It's pretty to look at
- Younger gamers might find something to enjoy here
- Retro fans looking for a £50 challenge might get a kick out of it
- The repetition
- The risible level design
- The lack of ideas
- The lack of mechanical progression
- The horribly-implemented co-op
- The price
- The bland, insipid story and setting
The Short Version: How did it come to this? Knack is basically a risible film tie-in without a film to recommend it.