The original Knack was the very first game showcased on the pre-launch PlayStation 4, with game director Mark Cerny also taking point as the lead architect of the console itself. In interviews, Cerny himself described Knack as a smaller-scale project, though many expected it to be a technical showcase for the new hardware. However, the arrival of a sequel represents an interesting opportunity for Cerny and his Studio Japan team: without the pressure of a system launch to deal with, Knack 2 gives the developers the time to show us what kind of game they really want to deliver.
Many things have changed since Knack was first launched, chief amongst them the introduction of the PlayStation 4 Pro - another Cerny-architected project - offering up the possibility of a title designed to take full advantage of the super-charged console's capabilities. Primarily, this is offered up in the form of choice for the user - Knack 2 offers players several ways to experience the game including two resolution options, multiple frame-rate modes and HDR support. So what has actually been delivered here?
By default, Knack 2 on PlayStation 4 Pro sticks opts for the high resolution mode, which sees the game running at 3200x1800 using checkerboard rendering. Seeing as checkerboarding is a crucial feature of the PS4 Pro - and a focus for Cerny's efforts in developing the console - it comes as no surprise to see Knack 2 tapping into this feature. While not native 4K, the resulting image quality is sharp and clean, working well with the title's distinctive art style.
Pro users also benefit from a high frame-rate mode, which pares down resolution to 1080p in order to maximise performance. On paper, an 1800p to 1080p resolution downgrade doesn't sound too appealing, but image quality is still highly accomplished thanks to a superb temporal anti-aliasing solution. Knack's performance profile varies according to mode, but suffice to say that this option takes you almost to a locked 60 frames per second - a huge improvement over the first game's Pro patch.
There's more good news for Pro owners too: both modes are available regardless of the display attached - the way it should be. Players still gaming on 1080p screens get the benefit of super-sampling or improved performance: a win-win scenario. For owners of the base unit - PS4 Amateur, if you like - the rendering set-up locks to 1080p as you may expect, but that doesn't mean that we're looking at parity with the Pro's high performance mode. Higher resolution shadow maps are implemented for the top-tier PS4, along with changes to ambient occlusion.
Overall though, the visuals on display are generally equal and the result is a great-looking release that represents a huge leap over the original game. There's a larger degree of variety in the gameplay to the point where the first three levels all look and feel entirely unique, while evolving from checkpoint to checkpoint. Compared to the repetitive designs of the original, something likely necessitated by the need to launch alongside the PS4, Knack 2 feels like a breath of fresh air.
Beyond that, full per-object motion blur returns in full force, along with a copious amount of background geometry in every scene, lots of intricate moving parts and a great selection of camera angles that contribute to great gameplay. Say what you will about the design of Knack himself but the improvements to both the engine and the art direction are hugely welcome here.
But the most dramatic improvement to the experience comes in the form of performance. We sharply criticised the original Knack for its uncapped frame-rate, which resulted in a wildly unstable experience that never felt great to play. That all changes with Knack 2: first and foremost, the game now features the option to cap the frame-rate at 30 frames per second. It doesn't default to this option but for those that value consistency over a 40-50fps output, it's a big win.
However, if you're playing on PS4 Pro, you may not even need it. The sequel's high frame-rate mode delivers a near-locked 60fps experience and it does wonders for the game. The game is faster and more responsive in this mode and looks great during gameplay. Knack 2 includes a lot of extra platforming gameplay compared to the original game and the additional precision granted by the improved performance level is welcome. Unlike the Pro's near-locked 60fps, the base system spends most of its time in the mid-40s. This is still a mild improvement over the original game as that could drop below 30fps relatively frequently but here, the frame-rate remains in the 40s most of the time.
It's interesting that Knack 2 manages to deliver on the promise of the PS4 Pro by offering players the option to hit that desired 60fps frame-rate. Few other games have managed to pull this off - Deck 13's The Surge being one of the very few, but it's great to see it here. Of course, it does highlight one performance-saving technique on display here - half-rate physics. When large physics interactions occur, the objects tend to update at half the frame-rate resulting in less fluid motion. It's not a big deal, but it is an interesting way to conserve resources.
So, to what extent does the Pro's high resolution mode improve over the base PlayStation 4's 1080p output? The primary difference here is, of course, the jump from 1080p to 1800p checkerboarding on the Pro and on average, the base system is two to four frames per second faster. This doesn't have a dramatic impact on gameplay since the frame-rate is already rather unsteady but it does give an idea of how the engine scales. Based on this example, you can expect a 1080p base game to scale up relatively smoothly to 1800p using checkerboard rendering. With the 30fps cap engaged, both would be locked at 30fps, but clearly there is a little extra headroom on the base system at the lower resolution.
Still, in the end, the performance here is exactly what we wanted from the beginning and it's great to see the team deliver. Those that value frame-rate can enjoy Knack 2 at a near-locked 60fps on a PS4 Pro while those that prefer image quality at a stable 30fps can opt for the 1800cp mode or 1080p on the base system. Then, for anyone that's left, there's the unlocked mode. Everyone is catered to here and that's just great.
Overall then, Knack 2 is an interesting release. It's a game that takes full advantage of just about every feature available on the PS4 line of consoles. You get fantastic PS4 Pro support with multiple selectable modes, you get full HDR support on all consoles and you even get full usage of the controller's built-in speaker - a feature that has largely fallen into disuse.
And while Digital Foundry's focus is on the technology, we're confident in saying that it's also a lot more fun as a game. The internet has had its fun poking fun at Knack, but the sequel really is a much better game all around. The platforming is solid, the combat is more refined, it takes better advantage of Knack's different sizes and there is even some light puzzle solving.
Also worthy of praise is the way in which the easy and normal difficulty levels offer up separate and distinct routes through each level, the lower setting simplifying the platforming elements considerably, presumably for a younger audience. The whole package comes together rather well - there's even full two-player co-op with dual Knacks - and it's a solid little game at a very reasonable price-point.
If you played the recently released demo, don't write off the game just yet as from our perspective, it feels like Sony picked possibly the worst section to demonstrate. The arena battles and dimly-lit scenery don't exactly entice players to give the game a shot. It feels just feels like more of the same or, at worse yet, more of the Werehog from Sonic Unleashed. Ultimately, there are much better stages than this that would have made for a far superior demo. Letting players run through the first section of the second chapter, for instance, would have transformed pre-release opinion of the title. The bottom line is simple: up against its predecessor, Knack 2 is a better game, and a better-looking game with more of the options players want. We may not have been looking for a sequel to Knack but spend some time with it and you may find that it's a pleasant, fun package.
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