Mark Cerny is one of Playstation’s most important figures. He brought us the Crash Bandicoot and Spyro games, and he had a major role in Ratchet & Clank. Now, he’s taking his prowess to the Playstation 4 with Knack. Considering his pedigree, this game makes me annoyed with, disappointed in, but mostly sad for Mr. Cerny.
The premise of Knack is this: there are humans, there are goblins, and they don’t like each other. Knack himself is a little creature composed of relics, Lego-like building blocks that power the world of Knack. He runs, jumps, and fights his way through levels; the whole thing is strongly – and appropriately – reminiscent of a Crash Bandicoot title. In fact, the opening tutorial stage feels like it belongs in the sci-fi zone of Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped.
Keeping things old school, these are pretty much the whole of the game’s mechanics. The whole thing is wrapped in a Pixar-esque graphic style, cementing the game’s family-friendly demographic. There are rival characters, handsome adventurers, obvious villains, and everything else you’d expect from a cliched children’s game (including an unnecessary, and extremely uncharacteristic voice for Knack himself). Of course, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing…when you’ve got solid gameplay to fall back on.
Unfortunately, Knack doesn’t have that solid base. You’ll find nifty little collectibles that accent gameplay in different ways, but 95% of the game is pure combat. Think God of War: going from area to area, taking out baddies along the way. Combat consists of two attacks: punches and Sonic-like air slams. These are problematic, as your punches have no range, and aerial attacks cause you to freeze on the ground for a second, leaving you open to attacks.
And oh, how the attacks will come. In keeping with traditional platforming rules, Knack can only take one to three hits before dying. In most platforming games, this is no problem, as your main task is getting from point A to point B. In Knack, this is a game-breaking issue. When combat is so frequent, having so few allowed hits is inexcusable; dying repeatedly to low-level enemies is a regular occurrence. The dodge ability doesn’t even help you get out of the way of this: when prompted, you’re never given an actual direction to dodge in, and you’ll frequently end up stopping directly in line with the enemy’s attack. The combat feels cheap, and these repeated deaths are rarely fair.
You can fight back with Super Moves using Sunstones, which fill up a meter when collected during the level. These usually level the playing field, but good luck using them often. The most you’ll be able to use per level is about four, so prepare to engage in cheap, cheap combat for most of your play time.
Knack isn’t defenseless (though it feels that way): he can collect relics throughout the level to grow in size, increasing his health and attack power. At times, you’ll even collect ice crystals or wood chunks to change your combat properties or complete certain sequences. To the game’s credit, these moving parts look excellent with the PS4’s particle effects. Every single piece is represented as it floats within Knack’s assemblage. When you take damage, they chip away realistically.
The problem is, collecting these relics and growing never actually feels significant. No matter how large you grow, you will never escape the feeling that you could be defeated at any moment. Even when in Knack’s burning wood or massive ice forms, I felt like just a pair of goblins or robots could destroy me. In fact, nearly all of my one-hit deaths (oh yes, those are here too) happened while I was in these “powered up” states.
And this is where Knack hits another roadblock – checkpoints. There simply aren’t enough; you’ll repeat basic fights so often that the game’s main mechanic becomes rote. To make matters more frustrating, most of your deaths will likely come just one battle before a checkpoint. I played on normal difficulty and found myself dying at least a dozen times per level. I’ll be honest – I don’t know how a kid is supposed to finish, or even enjoy, this game. For a game that aims at families and young ones, this is an egregious mistake.
Knack should be a good game. In fact, it could be with just a few simple tweaks. Unfortunately, the simplicity of these issues makes them constant and game-breaking. This should be the reason for families to buy a PS4 together, but it’s not. This should be Mark Cerny’s grand introduction to a new generation of gamers, but it’s not. This is a disappointment, and everyone involved should know better.