Posted by Marcello Apostolico
Old-school platformer, new-school technology
Way back in February of this year, millions of viewers around the world witnessed the reveal of Sony’s next generation console in New York City, the PlayStation 4. With lead architect Mark Cerny on stage to underline the advancements of the swish piece of hardware, the Marble Madness creator unveiled the system’s very first title, Knack. Developed by Japan Studio – one of the platform holder’s internal development outfits – the game was touted as a return to the simple, fun, and engaging platformers of old. But does it soar to the heights of Spyro the Dragon or sink to the depths of Bubsy 3D?
The game’s narrative thrusts you into the plot immediately, taking little time to beat around the bush. You’re introduced to an action sequence showcasing an army of goblins attacking a human base. It quickly becomes clear that these foreign creatures have evolved their weaponry in such a way that the mortals can’t fight back, and in a desperate meeting between the Earth’s top researchers, the bespectacled Doctor Vargas insists that a small creature known as, er, Knack represents the solution to mankind’s problems.
It’s explained that the titular hero has the ability to harness kinetic energy through relics, and this will become pivotal in the battle against the abovementioned enemies. Throughout the plot, it’s revealed that the protagonist is capable of many more skills than merely explosive growth, and this plays a pivotal role in the way that the story plays out. It’s a fun yarn that will keep you engaged – but you’re never going to get particularly attached to the characters.
At its core, Knack is an old-school platformer. There are few mechanics or gameplay elements on offer here that couldn’t be done on a current generation console, so this may not be the showcase piece of software that you’ve been looking for. Nevertheless, its fusion of Crash Bandicoot-inspired platforming and God of War-esque combat is enjoyable in short bursts, and it makes the game a great option for both families and those with a penchant for the PSone adventures of old.
Indeed, the controls are accessible enough that anyone can play. You’ll control the titular hero with the left analogue stick, while the right analogue stick will allow you to quickly dodge any incoming attacks. You’ll also have access to jump and double-jump capabilities – it’s a platformer, after all – along with a more traditional attack option and Super Moves, which are initiated by tapping the Circle button followed by a second input.
Knack is able to dish out three-hit combos with ease, with each hit deploying more damage than the one preceding it. The character also has access to a dash-attack and mid-air homing attack, giving you a fair few options in combat despite the simplistic controls. When your back’s against the wall, Super Moves such as the ability to spin around like a tornado, smash the ground heavily, and blast enemies with a concentrated round of energy augment you with the opportunity to take the upper-hand. The title also frequently throws a variety of foes at you, with multiple strategies requiring memorisation if you intend to avoid taking damage. It’s simple system, then, but the developer does just enough to keep it varied, which helps to keep the adventure interesting across its meaty running time.
The game boasts 13 chapters in total, each of which is laden with hidden areas that contain even more items for Knack to absorb. You’ll need to collect multiple parts to unlock gadgets, which boast a variety of boosts. One example includes the ability to earn more Sunstone crystals from each foe that you dispose of, while another highlights secret areas as you approach them. Finding all of the hidden items may take more than one playthrough, but this does increase replay value – especially seeing as there’s a New Game Plus option which allows you to experience the game again with all of your gear intact. Cleverly, you can swap items with friends via the PlayStation Network, and even unlock more goods in the game’s iOS and Android spin-off Knack’s Quest.
Throughout parts of the adventure, Knack will be able to transform into elemental alter-egos. For example, there’s a point where the character can be made entirely out of transparent crystals, preventing him from tripping any alarm lasers. There’s also another segment where wooden logs will attach to the hero, which can then be set alight and employed to burn down wooden doors and gates.
If that’s not enough, you can play the game with two-players, employing either a second DualShock 4 controller or a PlayStation Vita. Here, the additional player takes charge of Robo-Knack, a mirror of the main hero who boasts the ability to heal the protagonist. While this extra doesn’t culminate in any particularly groundbreaking co-op action, it’s a very welcome feature if you want to play with friends or family.
In addition to the main campaign, there’s also a Time Attack mode, which consists of 13 stages from certain areas of the core adventure. As the name may indicate, your objective here is to get through the level as fast and efficiently as possible, and upon completion you’ll obtain a rank and a position on the game’s leaderboards. Meanwhile, Coliseum Battles sees you facing waves of increasingly potent enemies, each of which will test your combat finesse to the finest. As already alluded, this is far from an easy game, and while the inconsistent checkpointing will frustrate at times, you’ll at least feel rewarded for your skills throughout. This is especially true during the boss battles, which are infrequent but require skill to successfully navigate.
While the majority of your attention will be fixated on keeping Knack alive, you certainly won’t miss the whimsical visuals. This isn’t a showpiece for the next generation console by any stretch, but the environments are well detailed, with sharp texture work, lush colours, and some nice lighting effects. The protagonist is arguably the star of the show, though, as he is comprised of hundreds, if not thousands, of relic particles that float around his core. If he takes damage, you’ll see these resources fall off and scatter across the ground, while collecting the goodies will see the character grow. Unfortunately, there are some framerate drops that occur when things get crazy, which is a particular problem during the aforementioned boss battles. It’s not game-breaking, but it’s certainly noticeable – and it’s not really acceptable for a game of this simplicity.
In terms of audio, the launch title has a very good soundtrack that provides some atmospheric tunes, while making things much more cinematic when the action picks up. The sound effects are particularly great, with attacks from both the protagonist and enemies sounding punchy and effective. A nice extra touch from the development team employs the DualShock 4’s audio speaker during gameplay, allowing you to hear when you collect relics and crystals. The voice acting is also solid, with the tone of the hero lowering as he grows.
Knack offers a refreshing return to the PSone platformers of old. The title may not be particularly ambitious, but it has a nostalgic quality that can make it difficult to put down. Checkpoint hiccups, framerate issues, and difficulty spikes prevent it from reaching its maximum potential – but much like the titular hero himself, the title will definitely grow on you.