When the PlayStation 4 was first announced we were brimming with excitement. But even at the big unveil in New York earlier this year the announcement of one of the console’s exclusive titles, Knack, a 3D platformer headed up Mark Cerny, the Spyro and Ratchet & Clank creator, was received with a tepid response. Is this really what next-gen gaming is all about?
It wasn’t so much that the era of the platformer had passed - Nintendo’s Mario is testament enough to that - but there was something unappealing cartoony about this caper. We gave Knack the benefit of the doubt and battled our way through a variety of levels at the E3 gaming show in Los Angeles some months later - which we found enjoyable but just not memorable. It was just too easy. Or so we thought. Come the final game and it’s as though someone in the Sony office has lent on a big red difficulty lever.
Which leaves us baffled. Kiddy, cartoony graphics married with a difficulty level that’d have even Rayman fans blowing steam out of their ears, is Knack the ultimate misjudgment and a title that ultimately fails to bolster the weak PS4 launch lineup?
Knick Knack Paddy Whack
Give the player a bone. From the off Knack throws you into a cheesy story complete with bloated-looking characters that just fail to charm. Even Knack, the relic monster Frankenstein thing created by Dr, um, Doctor, manages to zap away most of his appeal because he looks like a five year old whose voice has broken. A voice delivered in the deep tones and unintentional comedy as The Simpsons’ Troy McClear. It feels way off.
Anyway, there are goblins and they’re on the attack in this strange fictional world. We could leave it to robots to save the world, but no, Knack is here to show off his better-than-robot powers. The little nubbin is a mix of ancient relics that act as his life source, while sun stones scattered throughout levels allow him to charge up for super-power attacks. It takes a lot of sun stones to charge up one of the three available superpower slots, and then you’re able to generate shockwave, whirlwind and projectile attacks to take out those extra tough batches of enemies.
Otherwise it’s jump, spin, punch and constant use of the R1 trigger to dodge attacks. Enemies come at you, counter attack, shoot, dodge and do their damnedest to break you into a thousand relic pieces. They’ll achieve it often, too, and you’ll be whizzed back to phase one of the section to start it over again, before probably then dying once again too.
Ironically there’s no knack to Knack. When you think you’ve figured it out, the enemies will do something different, stomp on you, or catch you out from your now well-rehearsed attack plan, while in many cases just a single enemy blow from a misjudged jump will be your demise.
Games that are difficult definitely have their place, but in Knack it feels wholly misjudged, a kid-style caper with adult difficulty. It’s the Hollywood equivalent of “Pokemon makes a porno” or something. We won’t be looking that one up.
Eat, sleep, punch, repeat
Once you do get a grasp on things it’s immediately apparent that not only are you living in Groundhog Day, but that among the various worlds - the usual forest, ice, fire, etcetera platform features abound - everything is very repetitive to the point of boredom. Jump and punch will be your friend, knocking various enemies - if you’re lucky - into a flashing heap before they disappear for good. Until, that is, the enemy after that kills you and you’ll need to re-run the whole section again.
Different enemies are dispatched in slightly different ways, and you’ll need to keep an eye out to avoid the seemingly non-stop projectiles that come flying from all angles. Some people will love the difficulty, we’re sure, but there’s another thing that throws the balance out of proportion - literally - and that is Knack’s variable size.
At different points throughout the game Knack will find a batch of relics and grow into a larger size. It ranges from teenager-like, to adult, to downright huge. But the oddity here is that as giant Knack things tend to be too easy - you’re faster, tougher, more able to reach and dispatch enemies with ease. Then, and this was an inevitably, you’ll need to lend relics to ancient power points to get things working, or abandon them to fit through small gaps. Back in his smaller format the difficulty re-establishes itself - but you’ll still mentally be in giant Knack play mode, probably not ready for the suddenly tougher onslaught.
Graphically Knack does one thing right: it runs at 1080p and shows off that the PS4 can handle high resolution graphics. Well, sort of. Because, crisp though it may look, everything is very flat without interesting lighting or effects for the most part, and yet, somehow, there’s still obvious signs of slowdown and frame-rate drop-out in some sections. And with a 39GB install, it shouldn’t be a from-disc issue. Not good.
That’s surprising for a game that otherwise looks rather unremarkable, not truly next-gen to our eyes. Not that everything rests on graphics by any means - again, we need only look to Nintendo for that - but this is the first game headed up by Mark Cerny, the very guy who helped create the PlayStation 4. It’s his project, how was Knack the resulting baby?
READ: PlayStation 4 review
And, of course, PlayStation 4 titles are fifty quid at launch. A the time of writing Knack has a hefty £47 price tag online, when it feels like a game that either should have come for free with the console or was a download-only option priced at a tenner. Then, perhaps, we’d look on at the title with greater respect. As it stands it’s entirely misjudged, unappealing and, hopefully, not representative of the PlayStation 4’s path.
Knack is a Cerny misfire. We’ve tried and tried again over five separate days to prize some joy from the title, but it just hasn’t taken with us. It’s a game that fails to engage the player with its story as much as it fails to engage the PS4’s fullest potential.
But perhaps most striking of all is how difficult the game is. Some will love the challenge, but given the cartoony graphics the apparent kids appeal feels like a misconnect. Those young’uns will struggle to succeed - and for that reason you’d be better off giving Lego Marvel Super Heroes a go, a game that’s genuinely entertaining, albeit probably too easy, but that blows Knack out of the water for its quirky dialogue and design.