Sony has been saying for a while that it wants PlayStation 4 to take us back in time to a more innocent kind of gaming, but I didn't realise they meant it so literally until I played Knack, an old-fashioned platform brawler where you run around double-jumping and mashing buttons to punch goblins and robots until they flicker out of view.
Almost completely linear and framed by a third-person camera over which you have no control, Knack is a series of fights that box you into small arenas until you kill all your enemies, at which point a forcefield is removed so you can continue. These fights are broken up by basic platform sections where you dodge through traps. There are ice and lava levels, along with forests where you punch owls and spiders, and in the end I was surprised the developers didn't just go the whole hog and throw in a mine cart ride.
All of this is set up by a simple story about goblins attacking humans. Built out of prehistoric relics by an inventor everyone just calls the Doctor, Knack joins forces with the security robots of a billionaire industrialist called Viktor to repel the goblin threat. Accompanied by the Doctor's young assistant Lucas and his uncle Rydar, they all end up in a race to secure an ancient power. The result is a bit more advanced than what happens in the Mushroom Kingdom, but not by much.
It's all a bit simple and old-fashioned, then, but there's nothing wrong with that in itself. Unfortunately though, Knack lacks the originality, interesting mechanics and strong level design that might have elevated it to the standard of a Super Mario game - or even one of the better Ratchet & Clanks. Instead it feels more like a polished version of the sort of licensed movie tie-in THQ used to churn out to meet cinematic release dates.
The template has a little promise, in other words, but it never really goes anywhere, and there are too many mistakes along the way. Knack's party trick is that he can absorb relics and other items to grow rapidly in size and take on new abilities. But while this leads to the occasional neat moment where he towers over a previously imperious enemy, the majority of the time the developers fail to do anything interesting with the concept.
After a few hours you're told that if Knack hoovers up crystal shards, he can pass through laser beams. This isn't even a particularly imaginative idea, but it ends up being one of the most dramatic gameplay variations in the entire adventure. And yet even this modest deviation from basic brawling and platforming only pops up in two places. On the whole, the mechanics remain extremely shallow throughout.
The platforming is also a little sparse, although at least it's never frustrating. The same can't be said for the combat, which is dull, repetitive and relentless. Knack's abilities and the enemies he faces are all very simple and barely change between the first chapter and the last, so in every fight you just dodge between attacks and measure a few blows in response.
This is monotonous anyway, but it's made even more so by having to replay sections over and over again. Knack is a flimsy hero who can't take much damage, checkpoints are a little too far apart, and the designers often deploy cheap mixtures of enemies that chip away at your health bar while you're locked in a dodge or punch animation. It's not a great combination.
You can always reach for your sunstone attacks, which you charge up by collecting yellow crystals, except in practice you can't always reach for them because they take so long to charge up. What tends to happen is that you die a bunch of times, re-collect the same yellow crystals in the process, and eventually charge up a sunstone attack that you use to deal with that tricky enemy, who you hope is the last one before the next checkpoint.
"When Knack isn't being repetitive or shallow, it's just bland"
The fact your sunstone meter doesn't reset when you respawn suggests the developers knew how this mechanic would be used. You can almost feel their pity. Presumably they knew that Knack is the sort of game where your most common experience will be fighting through a couple of rooms, coming unstuck in the third and then swearing when you realise how far back the game has placed you. It's not frustrating because the game is particularly hard, but because it grinds you down through repetition.
When Knack isn't being repetitive or shallow, it's just bland. The way the story plays out is a good illustration of this. There are a bunch of things that might keep you interested - where the goblin weapons come from, what happened to the Doctor's wife, the chemistry between Rydar and the bad guy's lead henchwoman - but everything is so predictable and absolutely anything that has the potential to be funny, touching or dramatic falls flat because the characters are so straight and the dialogue is so mundane.
Knack isn't much of a technical showpiece for the PlayStation 4, either. The art style is as flavourless as the script and the streaming level technology has been kicking around for years. There are some impressive draw distances, but nothing to rival PS3 games like the Uncharted series, partly because promising locations like airships and volcanoes are reduced to sequences of boxy corridors and rooms with recycled interiors.
The upgraded hardware does mean that Knack's body is composed of individually rendered relics, but you only really notice this in cutscenes. From the distance you control him the rest of the time, he looks and feels like any other game character in shiny armour. To add insult to injury, the game suffers from slowdown in quite a few places.
Towards the end, at least, there are a couple of levels where the checkpoint balancing isn't quite so bad, and this also coincides with some better level design. By this stage you may also have unlocked a couple of gadgets that allow you to do things like slow down time or increase your damage multiplier. The rest of the game may be shallow, bland and repetitive, but here you get a sense of the kind of game Knack could have been if it had only dared to be a bit more complex in every respect.
Perhaps time was a factor, or perhaps Mark Cerny - the PlayStation 4 visionary who also led development of this game - is a better programmer and system architect than he is a writer and creative director. Whatever the answer, Knack isn't the kind of game you'll want to take home with your PlayStation 4. I'm all in favour of games that transport us back to the good old days of vibrant originality, but Knack simply doesn't.
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