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Knack review: crash and burn

by Andrew Yoon, Nov 14, 2013 10:00am PST

Mark Cerny is not only the lead system architect of PlayStation 4, he's also a game designer, having worked on games like Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Jak & Daxter, and Ratchet & Clank. With a legacy of great PlayStation mascots on his resume, it seemed like Knack was primed to continue the tradition on PS4. However, Japan Studio's next-gen debut never aspires to be more than a PS2-era game--and falters in achieving even such a modest goal.

In terms of design, Knack is a simple brawler at its core. You can press Square to attack and access a variety of special attacks with Circle. Perhaps the most advanced skill is the dodge, which uses the right analog stick. It doesn't get any more complicated than that.

While simplicity isn't necessarily a "bad" thing, it doesn't take long for combat to feel repetitive. The enemy variety isn't quite sufficient enough to sustain such a simplistic battle system, especially over the course of the 12 hour journey. Frustratingly, the game doles out power-ups in such a haphazard way that I was only able to get two upgrades to Knack in the course of a single playthrough. I was one card away from upgrading many more abilities--but alas, it appears that would have to wait a second playthrough.

Unfortunately, that's an idea that fills me with dread. It doesn't take long until Knack replaces fun with frustration. At fault is the way checkpoints are placed. There's an ebb and flow to the game, where lengthy combat sequences are separated by minor bits of platforming. It is especially frustrating to go back and continuously repeat combat sequences you've already cleared because of one mistake you make towards the end. Knack is a game that's all about high-offense: you dole out a lot of damage, but so do your foes. In Normal, it's not uncommon for enemies to kill you in one hit. And with very few ways to regenerate health, the latter half of the game becomes a chore.

There are moments where Knack really comes together--both figuratively and literally. Knack is at its best when it has an enlarged Knack tackling other giant enemies. Knack changes in size throughout the adventure, and unsurprisingly, it's a lot of fun to grow building-size and pick up tanks and throw them at enemies. These moments evoke the kind of childlike wonder that the rest of the game should have aspired to.

I also loved every alternate version of Knack. Stealth Knack is perhaps the best of the bunch, as it introduces one new button to play with: Triangle. You can instantly swap between a tiny crystal Knack that can run through lasers and a larger Knack that can fight enemies. When the game mixes the two elements together, you're constantly swapping between the two forms, staying on your toes. Unfortunately, the game restricts you to Vanilla Knack most of the time.

What Knack lacks as a game, it cannot make up for with next-gen spectacle. While Knack does push a lot of particles and polygons, it doesn't look especially next-gen. Knack's character model is incredibly complex, but the end result won't impress most casual onlookers. Even worse, the framerate can drop in scenes that involve destruction--disappointing given the relative visual simplicity of the title.

The story is also a convoluted mess, going on for much too long. Even worse, its reliance on deus ex machinas is almost comical. The emotional manipulation that Cerny attempts through the story is a bit too brute-forced; Knack "dies" (and comes back) in the story no less than three times.

Knack may be the family-friendly option for PS4's launch, and it may adequately serve that function. The game supports two-player same-screen co-op, which does make the game experience a bit better due to your co-op partner's ability to respawn infinitely. However, it's clearly designed as a single-player game, with the camera exclusively focused on Knack, and the second character magically disappearing in the game's frequent cutscenes. In many ways, co-op feels like an afterthought rather than a fully-fleshed feature.

Console launches typically feature two types of games. There's innovative genre-defining icons... and then there are the games that will be forgotten in a few months time. While Cerny may have defined a generation of platformers with Crash Bandicoot, Knack will be as fondly remembered as Genji: Days of the Blade is today. [5]


This review is based on retail PS4 code provided by the publisher. Knack will be available on November 15th at retail and downloadable on PlayStation Network for $59.99.





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