Knack joins a time-honored launch game tradition: It's better at filling a niche than it is at being a great game in its own right.
Knack balances out the hyper-violent shooting of launch partner Killzone: Shadow Fall by providing PlayStation 4 with a family-friendly day-one release. It has everything expected from a modern kid's game: DreamWorks-esque cartoon visuals, a goofy script, and just a drop of drama to keep the plot moving.
But it doesn't play as happy-go-lucky as it looks. Knack's occasional bouts of creativity are overshadowed by a simplistic, overused combat system and an unforgiving approach to death and checkpoints. It may be an introduction to Sony's next-generation console, but it's stuck in a decidedly old-school rut.
Knack is stuck in an old-school rut
Though he looks like a tiny robot, Knack's floating body parts are actually made up of relics, remnants of a long-gone civilization. He has been brought to life by the Doctor, a jovial researcher who believes this recovered technology can be used to help end a long-standing conflict between humans and goblins. Knack starts simply and with a light-hearted tone, but twists send it off in numerous directions, fleshing out his odd world.
It didn't develop into a world I cared much about, though. The goblins are presented as an intelligent race with some speaking parts, which made the pure hatred for them on the part of all the human characters difficult to parse. A lot of the history of the human-goblin war is implied - cities ransacked, different sides ruling over the other at different times - but Knack ends up focusing on more human conflicts, leaving a lot of uncomfortably unresolved questions. It doesn't help that the humans that play a central role are a lot less interesting than the goblin enemy.
As the story progresses, the Doctor, his young protégé Lucas, their adventurer friend Ryder and even Knack himself each get brief moments in the spotlight, opportunities to learn and grow from the events of the game. But their flaws are shallow and disappear without much of a struggle. Their individual mysteries weren't deep enough to hook me for the whole of this game, much less the franchise Knack seems eager to become.
I also found it hard to take anything seriously whenever Knack started talking. He has a distractingly booming voice and a never-ending collection of flat one-liners that had me longing for a mute protagonist. Knack kindly keeps his mouth closed outside of cutscenes, but the gameplay didn't hold my interest much better.
Knack's levels follow a single straight path, alternating between closed-off rooms full of bad guys to fight and simple jumping puzzles. The platforming is easy but mostly enjoyable, especially since Knack controls well when jumping. The combat, on the other hand, is grueling.
On the normal difficulty setting, Knack can often only survive two or three direct hits from enemies. You're expected to memorize attack patterns and dodge them gracefully. It demands a defensive approach that feels overwhelming compared to the limited offensive options: Knack can punch, do a spin attack in the air or use three types of special attack that require sunstone power gathered throughout the levels. The only working strategy I found consisted of doing everything possible to avoid taking damage until I could mash on the attack button or decide I was up against enough enemies that it was worth using a special attack. That's pretty much it.
The tiny margin for error is made even more frustrating because of the game's inconsistent checkpointing. Knack waits an awfully long time before saving progress - three or four separate fights, with long stretches of walking or jumping between each. A single death can cost 10 minutes of progress or more, which would feel harsh in any game but seems especially misguided in one seemingly intended for a younger audience.
You do have some options for defense. As a creature made of relics, Knack's greatest ability is the power to absorb more relics, making himself bigger and more powerful as levels progress. As he grows, Knack can take out smaller enemies with ease, but the game usually replies by introducing larger and larger foes at about the same speed. Still, it's exciting watching him slowly outgrow the environments he's walking around. It happens just subtly enough that I was always surprised and pleased each time I realized I was able to knock down buildings or take out giant robots with a single swing.
Knack doesn't seem to recognize that this quest for size is the best thing it has going for it. It meticulously gates your ability to grow larger through a small bag of repeated tricks: elevators and doors that are powered by feeding them some of Knack's relics, cutscenes where he loses them in mysterious circumstances, or level transitions - he begins every chapter in his smallest form. It's still fun witnessing Knack's growth, and the moments where he's at his largest feel extra special because they're so rare; I was just constantly left wanting more from the idea than the game was interested in providing.
At certain points in the story, Knack also gains the ability to add extra pieces to his body beyond relics - ice, metal, wood and so on. These new elements provide a layer of armor and allow for harder hits that take out enemies faster. They also let the game mix things up by tweaking common situations. For example, if Knack is decked out in wood armor, you need to be extra careful around goblin archers, who will shoot flaming arrows that can burn away that layer...but you can also put the fire to good use by setting other pieces of the environment aflame, revealing secret passageways.
These gameplay shifts are depressingly rare. Each armor type only shows up once or twice throughout the game, usually only for a small portion of a single level. As when Knack grows to giant size, these moments stand out as something special. But they also establish the constant repetition of the majority of the game as a dull slog, set between brief moments of crackling imagination.
Knack's payoff is too rare, and its tedium is too frequent
Knack has too little going on over its 12 hour length. The core concepts are strong - it's fun to watch Knack grow bigger and smash things. The incredible imagination promised by the dawn of new hardware is on display in Knack. But the moments of payoff come too infrequently to make plodding through another three dozen frustrating enemies any less tedious.
Knack was reviewed using a PS4 testkit provided by Sony Computer Entertainment. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews