Can Knack be PlayStation 4's Crash Bandicoot?

Hands-on with Sony's big platforming hope.

PlayStation 4 will arrive with a hoard of launch games - more so than the Xbox One - but many of its biggest releases are core-focused titles. Step up Knack, Sony's thus far overlooked addition to its launch which is aimed at nostalgic, now grown-up Crash Bandicoot fans and the rest of their family.

So says Knack's creative director Mark Cerny, architect of the PlayStation 4, but also a veteran of Crash, Jak and Daxter and Ratchet & Clank. Sony has focus-tested Knack with everyone from spouses to young kids, Cerny explained during a preview event in Tokyo at the company's Japan Studio headquarters, and in easy mode "pretty much anyone" can finish the adventure.

But the game can also be played by more than one person. The platformer has a drop-in/drop-out co-op mode accessed by plugging in another DualShock 4 controller. Knack - the eponymous golem made from the pieces of crystal you collect - is then joined by a sidekick, RoboKnack, who jumps in to help and donate some of his health when required. It's a neat mode for parents and older siblings that lets younger players gain a helping hand should the going get too tough.

To be fair though, played on normal difficulty, Knack never presents much of a challenge - except when the game decides to confuse players with one of its more random fixed camera angles or with a piece of destructible-looking scenery that remains firmly rigid. For a game about a character that constantly bashes things up, there's a limited amount of items in a level available to be bashed. You can pummel enemies and any blocks in your path, sure, but anything else remains rigid, and more than once you'll throw a punch through an obstruction that's actually meant to be there, funneling you on.

But there are other, more open areas, such as a mountainside that Knack must navigate to take out a number of anti-aircraft missiles after he and his human companions crash land in their plane. These other environments are far more interesting than the bland urban townscape and generic metal-walled facility seen in the game's unveiling. A section in an ice cave is especially eye-catching, as Knack's rocky spines turn to frosty icicles as he picks up the area's wintry-flavour of crystals.

The game certainly doesn't lack in looks, with gloopy goblin-fired guns that ooze gelatinous slime and sharply angled power-up crystals that twinkle and refract the sun. Watching Knack grow over the course of a level as you add smashed-up fragments to his frame is also a neat gimmick. He starts off areas as a pint-sized imp but can later become a 30ft high goliath, able to swat down planes and throw tanks with ease. Taking damage reduces his size, but you're only able to shrink a certain number of times before the game restarts the last checkpoint. Far from being able to dynamically grow all the way up to the maximum size (5000 crystal pieces) in each area, sections usually see Knack change incrementally in spurts of growth.

You fight with a range of simple controls and two-button combos, the latter of which unleash a special attack such as a shard-swirling whirlwind. Contextual attacks, for example when romping around near wrecked vehicles, are activated with another button press and usually involve directing something at something else until it explodes in a shower of pieces.

Knack fights alone, although the storyline holding the game's levels together features four human friends along for the ride. The tale remains under wraps for now, but the cut-scenes bookending each level are charming and draw copiously from the well of Pixar's art style. What Knack lacks, so far, is any suggestion of character, and the brief glimpses we got of his thick-jawed all-American companions left nothing memorable in the imagination. It's somewhat Pixar in design, but its story doesn't yet come close.

Japanese gamers will get Knack free when PlayStation 4 launches next year, but for core gamers in the West, Cerny hopes it will be "their second purchase" after Killzone or Watch Dogs. Every launch line-up needs variety, and it's pleasing to see a more traditional platformer launching alongside a wave of gun-toting others. But whether Knack can carve out as permanent a spot in PlayStation history as his ancestors remains to be seen.

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