Friday, November 29, 2013

REVIEW - Knack.

Knack is a PS4 launch title from SCE Studio Japan and Mark Cerny, architect of the PS4 and a man with a proud history in Knack's genre.  A kid-friendly action-platformer, Knack has a lot in common with the sterling titles of Cerny's past, where he was an Executive Producer on Crash Bandicoot and Spyro, and a designer on the venerable Ratchet & Clank franchise.

Those are all great games, and Knack - a light platformer with some simple but sharp brawling action - has a lot in common with them.  But not enough.

We live in an age when triple-A studios are shuttering their doors on a horrifyingly regular basis, and fewer and fewer developers are able to compete within this high-profile space.  With that sobering fact well in mind and a very heavy heart, I suggest Knack may be worth checking out, but not for more than twenty dollars.

It's okay.  It's alright.  It has its strengths, but overall it's pretty boring.  Pretty meh.

I'll explain the plot a bit further down, but pretty much all you need to understand about Knack, the character, is that he's a sentient 'Relic Orb' that has the ability to manipulate other relics into an ambulatory collection of cubes and triangles that approximate a humanoid.  Relics are the sort-of-mysterious ancient artifacts that the humans of the game mine to power all their machinery and vehicles.  As Knack wanders around he gathers more relics into his body, gets bigger and "stronger," and no matter how big or small he gets he always just kinda' looks like a
"junk art sculpture of a muppet."
-Alex Navarro, who totally nails it. 
As a new IP debuting at the dawn of a new generation of consoles, Knack the hero is pretty disappointing.  I think we're meant to be impressed that his body is made up of all these little polygons you can really see, but that feels like as much of a disappointing, shallow-minded throwback as Knack itself.

No one bought a PS4 to see big, chunky polygons.  We bought one because we never want to see a game character made up of cubes and triangles again.

It reminds one a bit of Kirby's Epic Yarn, which was regularly surprising and delightful in its creativity, but the developers didn't have enough respect for their audience to challenge them.  Knack sort of has the opposite problem, in that the game is rock hard and stiflingly uniform throughout, refusing to ever surprise.   The dynamics of a fight you have in Knack's first hour are distressingly similar to those you'll have in its last, as the game entirely lacks the experimentation and skill development on the part of the player of a more dedicated brawler.

Instead, Knack's gameplay is as simple and sharp as an NES controller.  It's simple like Crash Bandicoot, in which you either successfully strike your enemies before they hit you, or you die.

To a point, that's fine.  That's good.  That creates combat that's very involving for the player as Knack, regardless of his size, can only suffer two or at most three good hits (and often just one, depending on the strength of the attack).  The player cannot simply stumble through Knack, but must be attentive, present and engaged at all times - or the player won't be going anywhere.

It would be less frustrating if... oh, there are so many ifs with Knack.

Knack would suck less...

...if the player had any meaningful control over their changes in size.  If I play well or terribly, it doesn't matter - Knack only absorbs a significant amount of relics at certain developer-chosen spots, which then allows him to deal more damage in his punches, and those relics are then taken away at scripted story moments.

...if those changes in size had any meaningful impact on gameplay.  Occasionally you'll flatten tiny enemies as giant knack, but more often you're simply fighting larger enemies in melees that exactly mirror those you had at two feet tall.

...if Knack had more than a three-hit combo on the ground and an air-ball attack.  He's got some special moves you need to absorb "sunstone energy" to unleash - and those are pretty satisfying - but because you can only charge a move by absorbing a dozen or so sunstones, you can't rely on them to get you through tough sections.

...if the path Knack walked down didn't directly expand and contract in relation to his size, kind of killing all sense of scale.  When Knack's huge, he feels like Knack walking through a model city, not a huge Knack walking through a city.

...if the checkpoints occurred more often than after five or six cleared rooms, given that each and every goddamned room often has the capacity to one-shot you (not to mention bottomless pits!)

...if the game didn't feel like you're just having the same fight over and over.

...if the environments you travel through felt the least bit inspired.

...if the story and characters weren't so asinine. And weirdly, subtly racist.  And misogynistic.  Seriously.  Knack, the kid-friendly family-fun game has really weird you'll-notice-it-when-you-think-about-it ways of telling you not to trust dark-skinned people or women of any race.

To explain, I'm going to spoil the crap out of the game's (boring, stupid, doesn't-even-have-an-ending) story.

Victor and Katrina (right).

Victor, the only male human with tan coloring is an evil genius bent on world domination.  Katrina, his even-browner female companion is the strategic mind behind the throne, a martial arts expert and the closest thing the game has to a principal antagonist.

They show up in the game's opening, a willing part of an expedition with (Knack's creator) The Doctor to discover where the marauding hordes of goblins have been getting their souped-up tanks and modern weapons lately, with which they've laid waste to human settlements.  They promptly betray The Doctor and try to kill Knack.

Charlotte (in holo-communicator form).

The Doctor, one should note, still pines for Charlotte, the lost love of his life who fell into a bottomless pit during an expedition twenty years ago.  Charlotte, of course, shows up again - turns out she abandoned mankind and it's been her who's been making tanks and weapons so the goblins can wage their anti-human genocide - what a twist!

The Doctor, a heavy-set middle aged man, is assisted by a wide-eyed youth (whose name I forget, so I'll just call him Jonny Quest) and a tall, handsome, muscular blond adventure-hero type (whose name I can't recall, so let's go with "Race" Bannon) reinforcing the notion that the only folks you should trust are "normal-looking," archtypical white men.

It's pandering, formulaic and thoughtless.

Weirdly, I never even noticed blur effects while playing - Knack and his enemies look gorgeous, in motion.

Knack has its moments.  Moments that directly recall and replicate the type of pleasure the game means to.  The fun of just wandering through a colorful, cartoon world and being challenged by simple, analog fights with bad guys, kicking their asses with nothing more than a jump, a dodge and a three-hit combo and moving on - but that simple pleasure, alone, can't carry an entire game.  It can't maintain one's interest for three hours, nevermind thirty.

Its environments are sharp and clean and graphically nice-looking, but never interesting, never inspiring, never involving.  The game's art direction reads like a Big Book of Kiddie Gaming Clichés.

In small doses - a few hours a few times a week, perhaps - Knack may have been acceptable.  After the first few hours, I'll admit, I just wanted it to be over so I could go play more interesting games.  So, there it is:

Knack.  I'm glad it's over.

We're lucky that big strong white man was there to rescue that woman, aren't we, Cerny?


  1. I find the green goblins look alot like Shrek XD so im like "YAYYYY I just killed Shrek!"

  2. also. its super fun but than if you dont mind repeating over and over? You can easily build up the yellow crystals with no punishment except redoing the same sequence if you jump a cliff lol