During the 90s, video games were all about attitude. Promotional material treated the average gamer like a spiky-haired trouble-making slacker that only wanted to play video games and rebel against homework and parental authority – after all, video games were just another toy for children to pester their parents into buying for them around the holidays. To further manipulate our youth, a number of video game mascots appeared sporting rebellious attitudes of their own. Sonic’s ’tude was iconic enough to make him the avatar of a generation of desperate video game design trying to piggy-back off of his success.
While geeks everywhere were still recovering from the theatrical release of Howard the Duck, this era of video games were hit with Awesome Possum and Bubsy the Bobcat – two characters so bad and desperate for relevancy even our uneducated, young selves knew how negligent their existence was. At this point you’re probably wondering why I’m giving you a history lesson on inadequate character design. That’s because Sony has done the unthinkable and created a character so decomposed of originality he’s channeling the (lack of) personality from every single 90’s second-rate video game character created. His name is Knack.
Developer: Sony Japan Studio
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Released: November 15, 2013
When my eyes gazed upon Knack for the first time back in February, I think I was one of the only people who thought it had the ability to be the sleeper hit of the PlayStation 4’s launch. Within the first ten minutes of playing the game, I became quite content with its shunning – it meant much less heartbreak. The truth is, as friend of the site Willy Fretschl put it, “Knack is the launchiest launch title since Kameo.” I’ll go as far as to defend Kameo by saying it was at least a noble attempt at originality – but Knack doesn’t have that luxury.
If 90’s Disney decided to capitalize on the success and likeness of Duke Nukem, they likely would have defecated out Knack in the form of a straight-to-VHS movie. Yes, Knack as a character is that unlikeable. He’s constantly spouting out horrible one-liners and puns that even toddlers would find cringe-worthy. It doesn’t help that he has the voice of a raspy jazz musician, so when he gets covered by ice crystals and says “I’ve got chills” you can’t help but picture him incorporated into an segment of Disney on Ice. If he didn’t talk at all, the entire game would have benefited from it, but not by much.
The gameplay itself feels like it’s running on a manipulated God of War engine – though not as in-depth, fluid, or enjoyable as Kratos’ adventures. Gameplay is a mix of combat and platforming. As you run down the linear path, you stumble upon enemies that you must punch to death to progress to the next group of enemies. Sometimes between enemy encounters, you’re tasked with jumping over obstacles before you get to punch more enemies. The camera system channels its inner God of War as well, since it is constantly changing and always manages to find itself too far away to effectively appreciate the action that’s occurring on the screen.
Knack doesn’t look like anything that’s not already possible on the PlayStation 3. Don’t get me wrong, the game is pretty and does some stuff that clearly takes advantage of the PlayStation 4’s hardware, but it’s nothing to brag about to your friends. Taking a page out of the textbook of yesteryear, enemies in Knack fade away into nothingness within seconds of being defeated. I could understand this design decision in a game that boasts thousands of on-screen enemies at once like Dead Rising 3, but for a consolidated combat-platformer, that’s just embarrassing. Knack himself is a visual feat; you can see every particle that makes up his body and even the smallest particle has a shadow of its own. From a visual perspective, Knack is gorgeous, but that’s the only praise I can give him.
There’s no block button, so you are forced to frequently make use of the dodge button. Was it truly too much work to give Knack a shield made out of scraps? I wouldn’t mind resulting to dodging if the dodge button actually worked. When you attempt to dash, there’s a delay long enough for enemies to get a hit in, effectively rendering the dodge button useless when fighting more than one enemy. When jumping around and praying not get hit by enemies is much more effective than a dedicated dodge move, you know that combat is broken.
The entire concept of Knack being able to grow to massive heights sounds great on paper, but it is executed poorly in the game. A giant Knack plays no differently than a tiny Knack. It gets worse, as the differences between elemental debris don’t even feel different enough to factor into the equation. Sure, Knack looks cool when covered in ice spikes, but the cosmetics don’t positively transfer over into gameplay – in fact, they make the gameplay more of a nuisance. The elements that can make up Knack’s body have elemental weaknesses, too. This means that if a Knack made out of ice steps into the sun, he’s going to melt to pieces. Boy, what fun!
The highlight of Knack is easily the in-game cutscenes. Despite all of the aforementioned flaws with the cast, the cutscenes are bright, colorful, and fluid – except for when they aren’t. One moment you will believe you’re watching the latest Dreamworks flick, the next you will be wondering why the quality took a dip to PlayStation 2 standards. At seemingly random intervals, the cutscenes get pretty rough and feel phoned-in. Since they are gorgeous most of the time, this makes their flaws much more noticeable when they rear their ugly head.
As much as it pains me to say it, Knack feels like nothing more than a glorified tech demo. It’s something that looks fantastic when played by someone else in a controlled environment, but the moment you get some hands-on time with it you realize it is in shambles. It’s a last-gen title with a next-gen coat of primer. Everything it does is mediocre at best and it is most certainly not a reason to justify purchasing a PlayStation 4. If you did happen to buy Knack or receive it as a gift, that’s not to say you can’t find some joy in its simplicity – but it will only serve as a reminder that proper titles are just over the horizon and that the money spent on it could have been put toward a game that’s not living in the distant past.