Hands-on with Knack: the dark side of simplicity

After hands-on time with Knack, I’m still not sold on the promise of Sony Japan Studio’s mascot launch title.

In the months leading up to this week and the global launch of PlayStation 4, Knack was on my radar only for its apparent homages to the golden era of PlayStation platformers. The idea of playing a game that channeled everything great about Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter (razor-sharp platforming, masterful level design, adaptive difficulty, cartoon charm) have made my expectations pretty lofty, but much of what didn’t intrigue me about Knack in trailers was reinforced during my hands-on demo. There’s still charm to be had, and living in the shadow of the aforementioned games (arguably, platforming perfection) means Knack is still an enjoyable romp with both challenge and accessibility in spades. But there are elements of Knack that don’t resonate with me.

Chief among these are the levels themselves, which can feel a bit like empty spaces with impressive window dressing. You get the sense that rooms and areas in a level exist for the enemies that occupy them. Besides the scattered crystals that Knack can smash to grow in size and power, there’s not much in the way of environmental interaction, and most enemy encounters involved jumping over or around attacks before punching or carefully closing the distance to a ranged enemy with right-stick dodges. From corridors to platforms, from circular cave floors to walled-off rooms, the pattern stayed consistent. Enter a new area as camera follows. Enemies appear or are already waiting. Run in an arc to avoid opponent’s attack, and get close enough to punch or divekick. Jump up a rock wall, or carefully slide across a narrow, icy bridge, to reach the next enemy area. Rinse and repeat until the next cutscene, taking care to look for treasure rooms (with random power-ups and adget parts) along the way.

Granted, I played it safe with most enemy encounters after I realized Knack will kick your ass if you let it. Some enemy attacks will kill you in one hit, and it’s virtually guaranteed when Knack is in small form and isn’t augmented by many artifacts. I can see the potential for twitchy replayability as you try to better your runs through a level, memorizing enemy attacks and perfecting your movements along the way. My conservative way of playing definitely isn’t the only way–my co-op developer partner, running alongside as Robo Knack, demonstrated far more aggressive technique. But different ways of play don’t change the fundamental combat underpinnings of Knack. With a punch, a jump that becomes a ground pound, three special attacks, and a sliding dodge, it’s remarkably simple–almost to a fault. Knack has more in common with God of War than Crash Bandicoot–think 75 percent combat, 25 percent platforming–but without much of the same depth and flexibility.

And yet, I find myself wondering how much of a bad thing that actually is. The familiar enemy types and attacks, frequently one-hit kills, and somewhat empty spaces of Knack reminded me more of old-school Spyro than anything else, and I LOVE Spyro. My quick glimpses at cutscenes and Knack’s story had me intrigued and wanting to see more. The potential for couch co-op with my girlfriend or visiting buddies is obvious. While not particularly busy in terms of effects and action, Knack is definitely among the prettier launch titles, with a diverse color palette, soft lighting, and excellent animations. Simple controls and mostly non-twitchy gameplay are a natural fit for Remote Play on PS Vita, and my time with Knack streaming on the handheld (to be discussed later this week) made it easy to see spending 20 or 30 minutes playing Knack before bed, between classes, and the like.

Ultimately, from just about every perspective, Knack is simple in its mostly three-button control scheme, its art direction, and its gameplay ideas. But it’s also simple in execution, in the ease with which a couch friend can join you, in levels and encounters that test on-the-fly reaction more than memorization of your tactical options. All these things make Knack a game that will appeal to some part of just about everyone, but it may leave a lasting impression on just a select few.

The true test of Knack’s multi-hour appeal will come with a full playthrough, so look forward to our scored review in the coming days. But several game mechanics have me optimistic for its final quality. Checkpoints are a little less generous than we’ve grown accustomed to in the current generation, lending nervous urgency to each fight. Knack’s alternately small, cute self contrasts in hilarious fashion with his gruff, three-story alter ego. A fiction and from-scratch world pit humans against goblins in ongoing struggles of conquest with Knack, an artificial construct, caught in the middle. There are eight gameplay-changing Gadgets you can create using parts found in secret treasure rooms. You can even trade your random loot for a gadget part a PSN friend has found in the same room, or earn these treasures via the Knack’s Quest match-three app on iOS and Android.

I want Knack to be everything I love about platforming, mascot storytelling, and cartoon creativity in video games. Maybe, in an industry dominated by bulletpoint complexity, bloated systems, and overwrought narrative, "simple" will be enough. Our reviews (both written and livestreamed on Twitch TV) will tell the whole story, so stay glued to PSU in the coming days and drop a comment below with your questions and thoughts about Knack.