System launches are rough. You'll occasionally get exceptional games, but more often than not, console launches are populated by low-effort titles designed to pad out the system's library until it has a large enough install base to justify a budget. Knack is perhaps the perfect example of this. There's an interesting core to Knack, but none of that develops into anything substantial. Whether it's due to a low budget or rushed development, Knack is an iconic example of a poor launch game. It's playable, but that is about the kindest thing you can say.
In Knack, an army of Goblins is attempting to wage war on humanity. Knack is a robot created from ancient relics by a scientist who wants to stop the invasion, with some assistance from his plucky friends. The Goblins are evil because the plot says so, but the game never explains why I'm supposed to hate them. The characters are almost without personality. Knack is the playable character, but I'd hesitate to label him as a protagonist.
Knack is divided into two parts, or two actions: punch and jump. In the days of the NES, we were used to only two actions because the controller only had two buttons, and there was only so much you could do. Knack wants to hearken back to that style of gaming, but this isn't just a case where we've aged beyond the NES. Plenty of games, such as Mario, thrive on only a handful of moves. Knack has a limited number of moves, but it somehow manages to make those moves dull.
The combat is boring. There's a single punch button and only two meaningful ways to use it. You can punch enemies, and you can jump and punch enemies. That is about the extent of the combat, aside from a God of War-style dodge move on the right analog stick. The game throws a lot of fights at you, so you're constantly fighting enemies, with each new area effectively being a lengthy corridor that guides you to more fights. Enemies are simple but numerous, and most are defeated in exactly the same way. There are a few interesting enemies, like exploding beetles that you have to avoid instead of attack, but for the most part, you're fighting large swarms of goblins or robots. Repetitive doesn't even begin to sum up the combat system, but that might be acceptable if it weren't for another serious flaw.
The health system is wasted potential. In theory, Knack is powered by the number of relics in his possession. The more he collects, the bigger and stronger he gets. However, that isn't really how it plays out. Instead, Knack's growth (and shrinking) is scripted, and you're never given a meaningful chance to control it. If the game decides you're in a small area, you encounter a gadget, and Knack must surrender his excess relics before he can proceed. If it decides you're in a big area, then you'll find a box full of relics that instantly make you big. There's no reward for playing well, so you have as much health and power as the game says you have, and it changes based on the plot, rather than the player's actions.
As if that weren't bad enough, Knack also suffers from a misguided attempt to emulate the health system of old-school games. Knack isn't very durable, so when he's small, he dies after one or two hits. When he's large, he can survive as many as three or four hits. This is inconsistent, though, so some attacks can kill Knack in one shot but others can't. The only way to know how dangerous an attack can be is to get hit by it. The one consistent thing is that all attacks do a lot of damage. This damage system makes sense for a platformer, but Knack isn't really a platformer. It spends more time fighting enemies in corridors than it does jumping from platform to platform. What you have is a low-grade brawler with a health bar designed for a platformer.
You're going to die a lot, but it rarely feels like a reasonable or fun death. You'll die because you were caught in a punch animation when a goblin used an instant-kill arrow. You'll die because you misjudged the constantly changing reach of Knack's punch and was killed in one shot by a goblin club. It's a "hard" game, but it isn't fun, interesting or engaging. You'll die because of poor hitboxes, cheap attacks, or because you try to do something beyond the same punch-dodge-punch or jump-punch-dodge combo.
Thus far, I've ignored another option in the game, but largely because it underlines the health system's flaws. As you progress, you'll find sunstones that you can smack to charge Knack's sunstone meter. You can store up to three sunstone charges at once, and you can expend a sunstone charge to perform a super attack, such as a long-range laser blast or a giant AoE tornado. These attacks are effectively screen-clearing super moves that can instantly win a fight. They also recharge slowly, so you can use them sparingly. The trick is that sunstone charges are retained through deaths, and all sunstones respawn after you die. Every time you die, you can punch sunstones until you get a charge and use that charge to skip the fight. The underlying idea is that you can offer players a path past a difficulty fight if they can't beat it. It ends up emphasizing that the game doesn't expect you to play better or give you options to get past obstacles. It just gives you a few "give up" cards.
Beyond punching, you can also jump, but Knack isn't a platformer. The environments are straightforward and boring corridors, and any options for jumping or platforming are limited. You'll occasionally encounter some areas where you can jump from place to place, but it's the most barebones platforming a game can manage, even when compared to other kid-friendly platformers like Skylanders. There's not much to do beyond walking forward, hitting the jump button, and occasionally finding a wall to punch for a treasure chest. There are a couple of puzzles near the end of the game that take advantage of Knack's form by allowing him to change into crystal or ice, but they're so few and far between that they're practically meaningless. They feel like half-implemented ideas rather than a core gameplay mechanic.
Knack's upgrade system is one of the worst I've seen. When you find a chest, you get a random item. Each item is part of a single whole item, and once you collect all of the parts, you can equip that item. In theory, these items are cool things like a vampiric Knack who can steal health or one who can slow down time while dodging. The parts you get are random or semi-random, so getting a full item takes a ridiculously long time. You can speed this up if you have friends who also have Knack, so you can select an item piece they've already found instead of the one you just uncovered, but that's a minor comfort. These items are extra frustrating because they give Knack some much-needed variety. It isn't a ton, but it adds mechanics to the combat system, like a combo multiplier. It's ridiculous that they're locked away until near the end of the game unless you have a lot of PS4-owning friends.
Knack isn't even very impressive as a demonstration of the PS4's hardware. The character animations, environments and models are plain and flavorless. The few open areas in the game have some amazing draw distances, but you'll spend more time looking at boxy corridors and dull caves than you will at open vistas. Knack is technically kind of impressive in that he's made up of a bunch of small individually rendered relics, but this is barely noticeable much of the time. The processing power is used, but not in a way anyone is going to notice outside of the cut scenes. The voice acting is okay but unexceptional, and I can't remember a single song that played anywhere in the game. It's very unmemorable.
Knack is easily the low point of the PS4's launch. The game squanders its potential at every opportunity. What could have been an interesting mascot character for the PlayStation is instead the very definition of mediocrity. Boring combat, unimaginative platforming, and some flawed design decisions bring down Knack. Even with the extremely limited selection of launch titles, there's no reason to choose Knack over anything else. Those looking for a kid-friendly game would be much better off shelling out the extra money for Skylanders or Lego Marvel. There's nothing to recommend Knack, and it's destined to join the ever-growing pile of low-budget launch titles that nobody remembers.
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