The perfect example of a console launch title- and not in a good way- has inevitably cropped up as a PlayStation Plus freebie for February 2018.
Originally released November 2013
Copy purchased (PlayStation Plus subscription)
Okay, okay, dunking on Knack in 2018 is perhaps a little bit redundant. The game was a launch title for the PlayStation 4 at the end of 2013 and wasn’t terribly well-received when it was new; it sits on an aggregate score of 54/100 on Metacritic. It’s basically become a meme on gaming forums, a shining example of mediocre, dull filler. And now it’s February 2018, and here it is as a freebie on PlayStation Plus, giving me an excuse to a) play it without spending any money on it, and b) dunk on it for free internet snark points.
Even for free, the game isn’t particularly interesting. There are some good ideas in here, but the game’s potential is buried under a terrible plot, weak characters and some mind-bogglingly bad game design that ultimately make it more tedious than it needs to be.
The basic premise is that it’s a platform brawler. Knack (the player character) is made up of free-floating pieces called Relics, and shrinks and grows based on the Relics he collects. He can punch, jump, and perform ‘super moves’ once his super meter is full. This concept could be interesting if there was a tactical element- make Knack smaller to be more agile, for example, or have a giant Knackzilla rampage across the level. And maybe you could have secret areas that can only be accessed at one size or another, or different pathways through each level.
None of that happens.
The game basically consists of entering a room, punching all the enemies in the room until they fall over, punching all the collectables in the room, and walking down a corridor to get to the next room full of punchable things. Sometimes the rooms are outdoor areas, but they still function as rooms; invisible walls (mostly) stop you from jumping over the edge of the beaten path, and so you are corralled from one punching room to the next.
Knack suffers from a speed and range disadvantage compared to basically every enemy in the game; while many opponents have guns or some form of ranged attack, Knack does not. He makes up for this with… absolutely nothing. Walk into a room with three or four enemies with ranged attacks and you’ll be dying quite a few times, buried under a hail of gunfire or venom or boiling oil or whatever. You do have a quick-dodge using the right stick, but when you land you are frozen for a half-second, and the AI seems to be good at anticipating your landing if your timing is out.
I did exaggerate slightly there. He does have a ranged attack but that counts as a super move and drains your meter, which can be refilled with collectable Sun Stones. But the game is wildly inconsistent as to how much of a refill you get; it doesn’t seem to want you to ever become too powerful, so sometimes collectables you pick up just won’t count at all. The plot device of “Knack gets bigger by collecting Relics” is also ignored at times as a result.
Not that that matters, either. No matter how big you are or how much stuff you’ve collected, every enemy in the game still seems to be able to one-hit-kill you. Collecting a health pickup that refills 5% of your health bar is a total waste of time when the next hit you take will knock off 70% in one fell swoop. And you’ll lose all your health and size at the end of each chapter for plot-related reasons (mostly, “Knack needs to fit in the back of a character’s vehicle”). At least the loading times are quick- under a second to respawn to the last checkpoint on the download version- and you can cheese the game in places because you keep your super meter each time you respawn. Just collect the Sun Stones, jump off a cliff, and reappear with a higher power level. Lather, rinse, repeat.
To add to the misery, the developers didn’t give players any way of manipulating the camera to look around. This not only gives you the joy of levels where you are running at the ‘camera’ so you can’t see where you are going- and the game does this a lot- but means that enemies you can’t see, and can’t manoeuvre to see, can shoot you from off-screen.
The plot, such as it is, appears to only exist to give Sony’s cutscene animators something to do. Goblins (who look like World of Warcraft orcs, if World of Warcraft was an Aardman Animations film) have got a bunch of elaborate weapons and are attacking human settlements in Genericstan. Obviously Evil Industrialist Guy wants to send in his army of security robots, but a wacky mad scientist (who is only ever referred to as Doctor, no surname) wants to show off his creation- Knack. He’s allowed by President Whoever to tag along with the expedition, along with Kid Sidekick and Barrel-Chested Adventurer.
The character of Knack himself is pretty bland. The designers didn’t seem to know whether to make him kind of cute so they could sell toys, or super-macho to make him believable as a massive juggernaut robot thing, so they tried to do both. He is little more than “gung-ho thing that does whatever the humans tell him” and only occasionally shows any personality other than blind obedience- but when he does it’s cringeworthy, his dialogue coming straight out of an episode of Superfriends. The other characters seem to worship him, though, to the point that they constantly talk about him even if he’s off screen; the game will even cut away from Knack mid-chapter to show a cutscene with the other characters talking about him. I was immediately reminded of the Poochie episode of The Simpsons, and apparently, I wasn’t the only one.
There are additional power-ups that you have to collect in pieces that give Knack some buffs (easier detection of secret rooms, defeated enemies recharge your super meter, etc) but you aren’t likely to get all of these on a single playthrough unless you have an FAQ handy. Indeed, if you want to 100% the game and get all the Trophies, you need at least two playthroughs, including one on Very Hard difficulty.
Sadly, due to a slip of my thumb I accidentally unfortunately deliberately on-purpose deleted the game the instant the credits finished. I don’t see how “Very Hard” difficulty changes things when enemies can one-shot you on Normal, I’m not going to go and look for the other 14 rubies to turn Knack into Vampire Knack or whatever, and I’m sure I can find a better use for 34.8Gb of my PS4’s hard drive. Maybe the sequel!