By know, you’ve probably read all manner of criticisms about Sony Japan Studio’s launch platformer, Knack. But forget everything you’ve heard, and everything you think you know about Knack. Yes, many of the criticisms are indeed valid – but there’s a charm to Knack that makes it far more enjoyable than you’ve been led to believe.
For starters, it’s really not the kids-oriented platformer it appears to be. Nor is it really all that much of a platformer; it’s really more of a cute brawler, like God of War blended with some old-school Crash Bandicoot. And to that old-school end, Knack is often quite punishingly difficult. There are numerous enemies and situations that’ll kill you instantly. A single hit, sometimes two, and Knack crumbles to the ground in a scatter of rubble.
That’s perhaps, at least one reason, why it’s largely been panned in reviews. With infrequent checkpoints and rather frequent deaths there’s a lot of replaying the same sections, which I initially found frustrating. Later on though, I realised that this is exactly the way games used to be, and perhaps we as modern gamers have become a bit spoiled by regular checkpoints and games that very nearly play themselves. Knack very much took me back to my youth, where replaying the same sections of a game, and then finally getting through, is pretty rewarding. While not remotely as challenging as something like, say, Dark Souls, Knack has the same sort of ethos.
Back to Knack though. It takes place in a world that’s powered by mysterious and ancient relics that are mined from caverns and catacombs. During a relic expedition, inventor and crafter Doctor Vargas finds one that seems special. Different. Indeed it is, as years later he unlocks it’s potential, and it turns out that that particular relic, now named Knack, is sentient. And despite his initially diminutive size, Knack is particularly adept at kicking ass. That’s all very convenient, because the village is being attacked by curiously weaponised Goblins. Knack, naturally, is the solution to it all. It’ll be up to Dr Vargas, Knack and crew to get to the bottom of it all and show the goblins that humans and their mystical pet relic golems are not to be trifled with. It’s largely predictable twaddle, but fun enough to break up the action.
Knack himself controls rather well, with a handy double-jump, a dash to avoid heavy attacks and a standard attack. While he’s jumping, attacking propels him in a forward roll, much like Blanka. That’s very nearly the extent of what Knack can do. Nearly. He’s also got a few special powers up his sleeve to make attacking enemies a tad more interesting. He can’t go about unleashing these power’s willy-nilly though, and must smash Sunstones – yellow crystals that litter the landscape – to harvest and store their energy in order to strategically discharge these more potent attacks.
A Golem made from relics, Knack grows as he encounters more relics strewn across levels. In some levels, you’ll see him grow to positively gargantuan proportions, which you would imagine would help ease the difficulty. In truth, it just gives the game a chance to throw bigger, and nastier enemies at you. The smaller Knack is nimbler, more agile – but decidedly weak, taking just a hit before death. Larger Knack is slower, but more powerful. Unfortunately, the choice here is never yours; you’re always forced in to being the smaller or increasingly larger character by the story, and it would have been great to be able to change at will. It’s always a little defeating when, at the end of a level of being a giant wrecking ball of a creature, you have to give up those relics and revert back to being pint sized.
Likewise, there are levels that allow Knack to blend with other materials, becoming a metal Knack, an Ice-Knack or an all-glass one that allows him to bypass laser trip-wires. They hardly change Knack’s abilities beyond being aesthetic, and once again it’s all driven by the narrative and not by choice. It’s a pity, because it feels like some of Knack’s best ideas are never used to their potential.
During the game, hidden collectibles allow you to upgrade Knack, but only superficially. You can store an extra burst of sunstone energy if you find all the parts, or enable a relic detector that lets you know when you’re near relics. You’re also able to collect Crystals that serve as modifiers for subsequent replays, but these too feel a bit underutilised. There are other negatives; though many of the locales you’ll visit are startling in their beauty, others – notably the village – seem dull, and bereft of life. Enemies are recycled a bit too much, and it starts to feel a bit repetitive in its 10 hour campaign length.
Local co-op, which brings in a buddy for Knack that can help him collect relics and kick goblin behind eases the difficulty a little, and a bejweled-like companion app makes collecting gadget pieces and crystals – that you can beam to the PS4 – less of a chore.
In spite of the issues, I enjoyed every minute of Knack. It’s charming and fun, reminiscent of those old school games you loved, like Crash Bandicoot, Ratchet and Clank and Jak and Daxter. Despite it’s appearance, it’s a game for the hardcore player, the sort who’s been playing games for forever – and I’m convinced history will be kinder to Knack than most critics have been.