Knack – Picking Up The Pieces (PS4)

Knack box artIn addition to several small titles and indy titles, the PlayStation 4 also launched with Knack, a brawler created by Mark Cerny. Knack takes place in an alternate future of the world in which the discovery of ancient relics and sunstones have led to technological advances. In this world, a species known as Goblins have been oppressed and living in squalor for years until suddenly something changes… out of nowhere they suddenly have weaponry the equivalent of humanity. It is then that the world unites to form an expedition to discover the source of these weapons and eliminate the threat… and that is where you come in.

The resident corporate mogul, Viktor, offers his security robots for the expedition and a well known explorer named Ryder offers to lead it… but then a Doctor only ever known as ‘Doctor’ proposes a new kind of solution to the world’s Goblin problems: a sentient Golem comprised entirely out of relics who calls himself ‘Knack’.

Story Time

Knack is intended to feature a two-sided mystery story. The first side of the story is the Goblin threat, which plays out in the most predictable way possible. The second half ends up feeling like a bad cross between an episode of Relic Hunter and Twilight Zone – and it’s not as cool as it sounds.

When doing a dual story like this, it’s important – in games especially – to have the two be relevant to one another to avoid that disjointed feeling. Knack didn’t even bother trying, in stead seemingly trying to make the two as unrelated as possible and I really can’t fathom why.

In order to have stories of this sort work, you need characters you can care about. And, quite frankly, this game doesn’t have them. Every character feels strangely off-point in some way or another. Knack’s personality makes no sense, the Doctor is a sad parody of a dozen bad tropes that don’t mix well, Viktor is so predictable that it feels like a Saturday morning cartoon watching him, and so on.

Power of a New Generation

Knack is a fairly pretty game. It uses a very cartoonish animation style that does work, for the most part. It’s nothing unique or new, but it looks good and it is fairly consistent. Overall though, it’s nothing spectacular – it’s certainly not going to scream next generation to anyone… well except for two things…

Knack himself is comprised of at times hundreds if not thousands of tiny relics. The way these relics are animated and handled by the system is truly impressive. Especially when you start integrating some of the other components as well. Amazing.

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The other element that shows hints of ‘next generation’ design is the way the enemies are designed. Gone are the days where they only design 4 enemies for a game like this and recycle over and over again! Every enemy type has its own distinct patterns and AI, and every region introduces new enemy types to the game that help to add variety. This is beginning to get into territory that we don’t see often, and I’m excited for it. Admittedly, it’s just a taste… but it’s a good taste.

Forgotten Relics

Knack makes a few strange decisions, but by far the most disconcerting is the way it discards mechanics without a second thought. Over the course of the game you’ll gradually come across a variety of one-off mechanics that it uses and then discards without ever really making any creative use of it. At some parts you can incorporate quartz to become stealth knack, or wood which you can light on fire to burn doors, or metal which can be affected by magnets… if these mechanics were all used in concert it could have been really cool. But they weren’t… you’d see a mechanic in one level, and it’d be gone by the next… some did make a return much later on for brief moments but discarding mechanics that easily does not make for a good experience.

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The combat mechanics also feel like a relic from a long gone era of gaming. An era before we had fancy controllers that were accurate and reliable. Knack has an absurd amount of momentum when small, there’s a level of awkwardness to all of the controls that reminds me of early PlayStation 1 and 2 era brawlers before God of War showed us that it doesn’t have to be this way. It becomes extremely frustrating when the game demands some fairly precise platforming and movement because the game just doesn’t have the smooth controls to match what is demanded in a few sequences. Fortunately this does only occur in a few small places – the game seems to recognize that this is a big weakness and only uses it a few times.

Size Matters

The one absolutely fantastic combat mechanic is the way Knack grows. The sense of scale is fantastic, you grow from being what I have dubbed ‘miniknack’ into Godzilla-like proportions. There are two instances where you get to reach truly gargantuan levels and in those two instances the game suddenly becomes fun. It does a great job of letting you experience what it would be like to suddenly grow to that size as enemies that were threatening before can suddenly be killed merely by walking over them. In one level you’re actually pushing buildings over… it is incredibly satisfying – although it does beg the question of whether you’re REALLY helping these people by destroying all their buildings.

There are two problems with this mechanic… first and foremost, you don’t become anymore durable despite being the size of a 3 storey house. Your health bar grows, but enemies just do more damage to equalize that out, so you end up dying in 1-2 hits still regardless of your size. This really takes some of the joy out of growing so big. Of course they have to keep it from becoming a cakewalk once you get to that size, but they could at least make it so both you AND the enemies are more durable in stead of just making the enemies feel exactly the same. On average, most enemies throughout the game die in 2-4 attacks except the bosses consistently. How many attacks a specific enemy takes will vary as you grow, but the game’s enemy choices ensure that most enemies always take between 2 and 4 hits.

Knack_Size

The other problem is this game’s biggest and most damning flaw – the refuse to let you get stronger. They insist on resetting you, sometimes several times per level, back to the smallest size. And they make up the most utterly ridiculous rationales to do it. Oh hey look, a door – you have to power it with relics! Oh hey look, that thing just sucked off all your loose relics! Oh, well, this ship was stripped of it’s power core, well someone has to power it! It feels so arbitrary… and I will be blunt here: the game straight up sucks when you’re at your smallest size.

That may seem incongruous with my previous assertions that the game doesn’t change when you get bigger… except there is one key way in which it does: attack reach. Your attack reach becomes disproportionally small when you’re at your lowest size and it just feels bad. But worse is that when you’re at your smallest size, the slight differences in size that come from collecting relics alter the attack reach enough that you never quite know just how far your attacks will go. I died countless times because I misjudged my attack range based off of subtle changes in my size, and it just frustrated me to no end.

Final Thoughts

Knack_CharactersThere were a few graphical glitches I saw at parts, which is unfortunate in this day and age – especially given how linear the game is. I can forgive graphical glitches to an extent in a game like Amalur, like Grand Theft Auto… but in a relatively short and highly linear title… it’s just a bad thing.

The game tries to instill replayability through a few unlocked game modes, but they fall flat since the combat just isn’t satisfying. Additionally, the game has a plethora of collectibles which combine to form items you can use in game which could’ve been cool, except it takes so long to complete any of them and some of them don’t even work until you start the game over that it just feels kind of disappointing to get these collectibles since the game just isn’t good enough to justify a second play through.

A real pet peeve of mine lately is showcased in this game as well… I am sick of games that do not allow you to change difficulty. It’s such a small quality of life option that goes such a long way to making a game playable. There’s no logical reason to not allow it. For certain games it makes sense to not allow it mid-mission, but even in many of those games you can change it in between missions, chapters, levels, or otherwise… for a game with as high a difficulty level as this to not offer such a simple option is just disappointing.

Overall

Honestly, there’s a fair bit of potential in this game. If it’s being meant as the foundations for a series, it could work quite well. The flaws in this game are mostly planning and execution, conceptually it’s a very good idea. It’s disappointing to see this game fall so flat, but if you look at the potential… it’s a pretty picture for a future that could feature some fantastic experiences.

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