Knack desperately wants to be like the Crash Bandicoots and Spyros of old, but it falls short in more than a few key areas. Controls and movement are solid (if a bit imprecise), and there’s a good amount of aesthetic value in the game’s colorful (if generic) cartoon style, but Knack overstays its welcome by placing undue focus on a laughably overwrought story, pointless characters, and combat that gets the energy of old-school platforming right but not the soul. The result offers decent co-op fun and a singleplayer journey with two extremes. At its peak, when platforming meets twitch combat, Knack is mildly enjoyable. But for every moment like this, there’s another where you’ll be backing out to the PS4 Dynamic Menu looking for something–anything–else to do on your new console.
It’s odd of me to decry a game that’s quite a bit longer than expected for overstaying its welcome, but Knack does exactly that. Brief cutscenes are littered across all of the game’s 13 chapters, with longer ones between chapters. All attempt to tell an interesting story about how goblins hate humans and humans want to find relics to fuel scientific discovery, but uninteresting characters and insipid dialogue abound. Dramatic story beats are portrayed with so little enthusiasm–from voice acting to presentation and animation–as to feel like a complete waste of my time. When cutscenes and story development don’t serve as entertainment reward for clearing a difficult section or conquering a particularly aggravating checkpoint, they just feel like padding to a game’s length.
It doesn’t help that the Doctor and Lucas, your two most frequent companions throughout the game, hang carefully behind while you clear room after room of baddies, only to inexplicably appear when transitioning to a new checkpoint. By the end of the game, I honestly sympathized more with the greedy, human-city-attacking goblins: at least they didn’t tag along in the shadows, spouting completely meaningless dialogue and taking credit for all my hard work.
And rest assured, it is hard work. Knack has more in common with the difficulty of classic 3D platformers than anything else, with late-game checkpoints often setting you back three or four fights at a time. From a control and feeling standpoint, these fights are well-designed. Whereas Crash Bandicoot and its ilk were about twitchy jumps and perfect timing over and through obstacles, Knack applies the same trial-and-error, one-and-done energy to its combat situations, frequently pitting the eponymous hero against three, four, or even more baddies at a time. While Knack’s health grows with his stature when relics are collected, one- or two-hit-kills are almost always the rule, so gameplay is less about memorizing jumps and more about learning attack patterns, deciding which enemy types have priority based on layout and group composition, and executing on your strategy without hesitation, adapting as needed.
It’s undeniably exciting at times, in the same way that even the simplest leaps of those PSone classics could be heart-pounding, but for a game so reliant on the quality of its combat, Knack does very little of interest with it. You can perform a basic punch combo, a dive attack from the air, and one of three special attacks by collecting sunstones, but that’s it for offensive options. There’s actually an impressive variety of enemy types, especially factoring in late-game behemoths, but many can be tackled with the same strategy: jump over attacks until you’re close enough to divekick. There are variations, sure, and sometimes a basic punch is more useful than a dive attack, but by and large you can approach most enemies–even the eccentric ones–in the same way, with trial-and-error deaths honing your strategies as you progress.
Knack’s controls aren’t quite as precise as they need to be, either. Games like this can live or die on the repeatable, predictable nature of the character’s moves and movements. The auto-aim on Knack’s dive attack can target the wrong enemy (or none at all), and as he grows with relics, subtle changes to his mobility can fiddle with your expectations.
Moment to moment, the action fluctuates between fun and aggravating (with fairly random difficulty spikes throughout), but it’s pretty uninteresting the whole way through. Without a compelling, or even competent, story to push you forward, and without much in the way of exciting gameplay twists, playing and finishing Knack can feel like a chore. Your only prizes for the journey are new modes like Time Attack, but without a strong impetus of fun, what’s the point?
To its credit, the game has a few cool ideas. In certain chapters, Knack picks up unusual materials like glass, wood, or metal, and level mechanics require special management of his properties. When made of wood, Knack is prone to catching fire and his health will slowly diminish as the fire burns away blocks. With metal, his entire stature can be sucked away or held tight to the ground by magnets. Meanwhile, Gadgets can be constructed by parts found as random loot in hidden treasure rooms, powering Knack up with passive abilities. You can also acquire gems as stat boosters, or trade the gadget parts you find with parts your PSN friends found in the same room. But neither gadgets nor gems make an appreciable difference in the game at large. I casually kept an eye out for hidden treasure rooms throughout the game, but in an entire playthrough, I didn’t find enough gadget parts to actually construct a single gadget.
Knack is a mixed presentation bag, as well. The soundtrack is pleasing and catchy, and the graphics have a soft, Pixar-like quality, but a surprising number of framerate drops accompany explosions of relics when Knack is damaged, and several textures are markedly less detailed next to others.
Ultimately, Knack takes way too many missteps to be counted among the platforming legends it reveres. My feelings toward the characters its pointless story spends so much time on ranged from indifference to contempt, and every time I started to enjoy the gameplay, a frustrating fight or by-the-numbers level would highlight Knack’s design flaws. Families and PS4 owners desperate for easy couch co-op might find enough cartoon charm to drop full price, but the best thing I can personally say about Knack is that it reminded me what I love about simple 3D platformers. One of these days, I’ll set aside time to play a better one.