Knack 2 director Mark Cerny is one of the most accomplished game developers of the last three decades, most especially in platform adventures featuring likable characters. From Marble Madness to Sonic the Hedgehog 2, from Crash Bandicoot to Ratchet & Clank, he's made his mark on a multitude of verdant, primary-hued worlds, where colorful critters boing and bounce.
But sitting down with him to play Knack 2, I'm not so much thinking about bandicoots and hedgehogs as another form of wildlife. Specifically, the elephant that's in the room. Its name is Knack, Cerny's PlayStation 4 launch game that received lukewarm reviews. In our 2013 review, Polygon called it “tedious.”
As interested as I am in playing his new game, I'm also curious about this blot on Cerny’s resume. I want to know: What went wrong with Knack?
I've interviewed Cerny before and found him to be polite, affable and absolutely determined to stick to the basic facts in hand. With a couple of PR people sitting behind us, I know that the direct approach isn't going to get me anywhere, but in the course of my 90 minutes with him, he lets drop a few suggestions as to what went awry.
By the end of our time together, I figure out that the answer to my question is on the screen, right in front of me. Knack 2 is a kind of reply to Knack. Almost everything that the critics — and, I suspect Cerny too — did not like about the first game has been tossed out or improved. Knack 2 looks to me like everything Knack was not.
What Knack lacked
As one of Sony's go-to game design guys, Cerny's also had a hand in the likes of The Last Guardian, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and God of War 3, and he is currently technical producer on Hideo Kojima's Death Stranding. Plus, he was lead architect of PlayStation 4 and is a key figure in Sony's hardware team.
To outsiders, most particularly the media, he's always seemed highly scripted. As we sit side-by-side playing Knack 2 together, he even occasionally turns to a cheat sheet, to make sure he's covered all the publicity department-mandated bullet points.
I ask him, in a roundabout way, why more varied platforming sections and combat — a big part of Knack 2 — weren't in the original game. He sits back for a moment and has a little think. "As a launch title, it's hard to find the time to put all the things in the game, especially those that only a subset of the audience would see,” he says. “Also, I didn't appreciate how may people liked and expected to see that much platforming."
He also mentions that this game — due out on PlayStation 4 later this year — has more checkpoints than the first, an omission that was much criticized. "I do believe those days are over," he says. "We're finding challenges in other places than successfully completing lots of consecutive platform jumps before reaching a checkpoint."
Both games were built on three-year development schedules. But the first began with a much smaller team than the 60 who have been working on the sequel. And, instead of grappling with an emergent unknown, the new team is familiar with the hardware.
Reading between the lines, I feel like Knack was created under less-than-ideal conditions, and that neither Sony nor Cerny really understood that the audience would be both children and older platform game fans.
So, the elephant in the room takes a last toot on its trunk, turns tail and bounces down the corridor of Sony's crystalline offices. Satisfied that I'm not going to get much further in my inquiries, I decide to focus on what's in front of me.
Big and small
The character Knack has a distinguishing feature that sets him apart from his lovable cohorts. He's able to collect bits and bobs called relics in order to make himself larger. When required, he can also temporarily shed his largeness and go back to being small again.
The upshot is twofold. Little Knack comes into play when there are puzzles to be solved or secret rooms to explore. Big Knack is really, really good at crushing enemies in combat. That's a major incentive to collect relics littered around the game.
Too little was made of this in the original game. The problem was compounded by enemies that also increased in size, in order to counter Knack's progression, thus rendering the advantage moot.
But in Knack 2, the main character is forever switching back and forth between small and large sizes. Meanwhile, enemies stay the same size. This lends a Rampage-like fun element to slaying bad guys. In one section, I work my way through a castle, growing in size all the way.
At the end, by some narrative trifle, I find myself back at the beginning of the level, but instead of being the size of a boy, or even a man, I'm a giant. It's enormously fun to go back and humiliate previously tricky enemies. Even so, sooner or later, Knack has to face a boss (or two) who is more his own size.
While the original Knack relied too heavily on the visual treat of Knack de-larging and shedding dozens of pleasing particles all over the floor, its sequel is more interested in searching for gameplay potentialities.
There's a much-reported cut-scene joke in Knack 2 in which a character says to Knack: "It’s hard to believe you saved the world. All you know are three punches and a kick."
This self-deprecating dig was featured in the preview materials shown at the game's publicity debut during PSX in December, a clear indication that Sony recognizes the original's shortcomings, most especially in its two-dimensional combat.
In Knack 2, combat is very different. Basic moves such as kick, punch, jump and slam are augmented by chain maneuvers, dodges, special moves and weapons. There are sections in which Knack briefly becomes invincible.
Shield use is extremely important, offering a chance to counter against goblin attackers, or even to bounce projectiles back at them. Crystal energy can be collected to boost defenses. This is especially useful when Knack is small and extremely vulnerable.
In cooperative play, Knack and partner can also team up to execute moves on one another in order to create powerful weapon attacks. This includes a deadly machine-punch and an explosion. "When we tested the game, we saw that siblings always liked hitting each other, so we decided to turn that into a weapon," says Cerny.
Strategic positioning is also important, as enemies seek to outflank Knack and deal double damage through coordinated attacks. But I found the character's movement to be fluid.
There's a lot of fighting in this game, and variety is also added through upgrade trees that add more than 30 boosts and special moves. Secret rooms also yield gadget parts that can be put together to create advantageous devices. Once a treasure is discovered, players can also see what their social friends found, and can choose those if they wish.
Knack 2 takes place about a year after the original game. Its story centers on the destruction of a city, and how Knack and friends fight back. Once again, his human teenage sidekick Lucas is on hand to offer tips and advice. A new character — a young woman monk — also joins the clan.
Platforms are often mechanical with puzzles designed to mirror their environments. A marketplace section features puzzles that require weights and balances, for example. A monastery has lots of secret rooms and hideaways as well as Indiana Jones-style giant boulders. A quiet palace requires stealth and much use of size-shifting in order to avoid searchlights and guards.
Cerny points out that there are no "floating platforms." There are also three different difficulty levels, which allow for more advanced players to deal with challenging platform sections that might be too much for younger players, who are routed through the easiest sections while in easy mode.
The game also includes shooting via a tank level that can be played individually or cooperatively. It’s not just a matter of blowing away the enemy, though. There are also some navigational puzzles to solve while under fire.
It's clear that virtually all the criticisms aimed at the first game have been addressed, and that Sony is keen to make the point that this sequel is a significantly more interesting game. It's certainly more in keeping with Cerny's record for making enjoyable, varied combat-platformers.
He makes the point that sequels, at least in video games, often improve on the originals. "Crash Bandicoot 2 was a lot better game than Crash Bandicoot," he says. "And everyone appreciated the jump in quality between Uncharted and Uncharted 2."
Based on the evidence so far, Knack 2 looks like it will offer a much more enjoyable, rounded and varied experience than the original.