In their more candid, less scripted moments, many developers will tell you that true next-gen games only really start to emerge 12, 18, or 24 months after the consoles themselves launch.
This is for two reasons. The first comes down from the publishing side: the audience for next-gen games is limited by the relatively tiny number of next-gen consoles nestled under televisions, making cross-generation development a financial imperative. Thus, accommodating seven-year-old hardware clips a game’s next-gen aspirations.
The second comes from the development side: familiarity with the platform and the hardware. As developers and programmers begin to better understand a system, they can begin to optimise, to think more laterally about the issues they encounter and the toolbox available to them, and to wring every last scrap of resource from the system.
But in the lead up to the PlayStation 4’s launch, Knack represented an especially exciting proposition. Not only is it exclusive to PlayStation 4, the game’s director, Mark Cerny, was also the PlayStation 4’s hardware lead architect. Very few people would have a better understanding of what the PlayStation 4 really is, and what it’s capable of, than Mark Cerny.
Knack might’ve been that white whale, that launch-day title that demonstrated a new system humming just inside the black, bristling with new gameplay paradigms that could shake the dust off years of systemic inertia that have crept in boxed console development.
Instead, it desperately clings to the tired gameplay mechanics of yesteryear, and given its pedigree and potential, that’s especially disappointing. Players are treated to invisible barriers, platforming, collectible gathering, sloppy checkpointing, repetition, and all manner of equally sluggish, six and seventh generation thinking.
Knack is designed to hark back to the halcyon days of sugary cereal, Saturday morning cartoons, and colourful videogames. Its Pixar-esque aesthetic belies a game with none of that company’s ability to construct interesting, rounded characters and meaningful narratives.
Player character Knack is a kind of Golem constructed from prehistoric relics by an inventor, doctor Vargas. Together with the doctor’s young assistant Lucas, and his uncle Rydar, Knack sets out to repel an attempt by goblins to reclaim their ancestral lands from the human occupiers.
It might read like a slightly uncomfortable allegory for Zionism if it weren’t all so dreadfully flat and vacant. The motivations, histories, and trajectories of each character are altogether predictable, and Knack himself represents little more than a sorely-missed opportunity to ruminate on important questions of purpose and identity in a way that’s accessible to audiences of all ages.
Those shortcomings might be pushed to the background if Knack was transmitting enough good ideas through the controller. Unfortunately, the gameplay is rote.
It’s also unevenly difficult, and only sparsely punctuated with checkpoints – a surprise given that the game’s inclusive and approachable aesthetic pitches Knack as all-ages, all skill-levels fare. Each level is a linear construction of contained combat areas that must be cleared of goblins, and basic platforming.
In the latter, Knack is responsive and enjoyable, if a little lacking in variety. In the former, it is fiddly. As Knack can only absorb two to three hits before being flung back to a checkpoint that may be upwards of 10 minutes behind him, the game demands a defensive, cautious approach asynchronous with Knack’s role as defender of humanity and scourge of the goblin horde.
Knack is able to accumulate sunstone power in order to unleash one of three special attacks, but it’s a slow process, and it quickly establishes itself as a precious resource system. Trying to decide when to use it soon becomes fraught.
The game’s best idea is Knack’s ability to absorb additional relics in order to increase his size and power. Knack begins each level in his most diminutive bell-shaped form, but as he progresses and gathers more relics to himself, he grows. What were at first almost insurmountable foes can now be flicked away like gadflies. It’s a shame the game mostly fails to capitalise on the concept by simply increasing the size and difficulty of Knack’s enemies in lock step.
In addition to relics, Knack is able to absorb materials and substances. For example, he might add wood or ice to his form that acts as armour to be burned or melted by flaming goblin arrows. In crystal form, he can pass through security lasers undetected. There are some good ideas here, but each is only used once or twice, and the sense one gets is that these were lately implemented or not fully-explored in order to ensure the the game was ready for release day.
That criticism might be extrapolated out to apply for the game in its entirety. Aside from the genuine complexity of Knack’s appearance, there appears to be very little here that couldn’t have been achieved on the PlayStation 3. The draw distance is also impressive, but not far in excess of what can be done on seventh generation hardware.
Knack is disappointing. It’s a well-meaning game that fails to deliver in spite of the leg-up it appeared to have on paper. The role of PlayStation 4 mascot is still very much available.