Opening the Playstation 4 reveal with Knack was a bold choice. Many were expecting Sony to kick off with something that would melt our unprepared little eyeballs; a game that immediately and very dramatically showed off their next-gen hardware. Instead we found ourselves watching a cutesy action platformer that wouldn’t necessarily look out of place as part of the PS3 library. Of course we were assured that the hardware was working overtime to deal with all of those fancy particle effects, but come on, it wasn’t the game that most of us were expecting at the start of the conference. I remained puzzled by Knack and I did like the sound of a character that grows as you play, in almost a Katamari-style, so I made sure to find myself at their E3 booth when I got the chance towards the end of the Expo.
Knack (the character, not the game) is a funny little chap. When you first meet him, he’s not especially intimidating, and yet we’re told he’s apparently humanity’s most valuable weapon in a war against a race of goblin-esque baddies. Although at first he’d likely struggle to hold his own against, I don’t know, a particularly mean Jack Russell, Knack has the ability to absorb metal and other bits and bobs into his body, quickly growing to many times his original size. The demo I played showcased several different areas of the game, and so I got to see the character after he’d been shrunk down to his smallest form to clamber through air vents, but also as he fought his way through a street, standing higher than the buildings surrounding him.
The game seems to dictate roughly how big Knack should be during certain levels, with some marginal change taking place as a result of your actions. Those of you that enjoy those devilishly addictive Lego games will probably get a kick from seeing Knack smash up a lamp post and adding bits of that scrap metal to his form, whereas taking too many hits from the enemies you encounter appears to take away from his size. It’s a nice touch and Knack himself is consistently the best looking part of the game, as he acts as this centre of gravity for all of the junk that you end up collecting, but I would have preferred to have had a little more control over the mechanic.
Certain levels will require Knack to be a giant icicle monstrosity and so that’s what he has to be. I’d be much more interested in a game that occasionally gave me the opportunity to play around in more open situations. I’d like to see Knack pitted up against enemies that are initially far too large for him to defeat, forcing the player to run around searching for materials to absorb, whilst avoiding their gaze. The demo didn’t suggest that SCE Japan are making that game and it’s a bit of a shame, because their growth mechanic is wasted on such a linear adventure.
The gameplay is primarily made up of either melee-centric combat, or puzzle sections that rely on Knack switching between two different forms. When necessary you’ll be given the option to drop all of your junk and revert to Knack’s original form, allowing him to fit into different areas or avoid detection, before eventually calling it all back to pull an unnecessarily big lever. It’s all super basic stuff and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I think some members of the family are going to enjoy it more than others.
As for the combat, I found that most of my fights against those goblin chaps consisted of running (or jumping) towards them and cycling through the same three or four punching animations. Knack can’t block attacks, but I did find myself relying on the dash ability to dodge during most fights as he can be rather fragile at times. Trying to make it through each fight without taking a single hit provides some challenge, but the real highlight of the combat comes with the use of his special moves, which look pretty damn incredible. The nuts and bolts that you may have collected throughout the course of a level can suddenly be flung outwards, transforming Knack into a tornado for a few seconds of wonderful chaos. You have to be pretty sparing with these abilities, but it was only whilst using them and watching the hundreds of tiny fragments bombard my screen that I started to catch glimpses of why this game was a Playstation 4 title.
Although there are plenty of visual comparisons to be made between Knack and its Naughty Dog/Insomniac predecessors, I’m yet to see the same character they possessed. Those are pretty huge shoes to fill, but to be honest, I think the game’s central mechanic is strong enough that it could have prevailed regardless. Using the improved hardware of the Playstation 4 to create an adventure game in which the character destroys and physically absorbs the environment is an idea with a whole lot of potential. My problem with Knack is that it doesn’t come close to using all of it and so we’re left with an adventure game that would probably struggle to stand out on the current generation, let alone the next. Maybe a younger Chris would disagree, but Knack hasn’t got what it takes to stand toe to toe with Crash Bandicoot, Jak, or Ratchet.