the artistry and psychology of gaming




Review in Brief
Game: A simple action-adventure platformer based on the protagonist’s ability to radically change his size.
Good: Interesting core gimmick; strong pace and balance; low, accessible learning curve; decent plot for the genre.
Bad: Poorly-used core gimmick; terrible checkpoint spread; incredibly linear, repetitive, generic, simple, and impersonal; some lazy design mistakes.
Verdict: It’s not a bad game, it’s just a very generic, unmemorable, repetitive game.
Rating: 5/10 – “Playable – nothing special about it”
Recommendation: Well, it’s not like there’s much else to play in the PS4’s launch library.

“I guess every console needs a generic platformer in its launch library.”

With every new console generation, it seems like most developers try to include at least one completely original exclusive property in the launch line-up. For the Nintendo Wii, it was Wii Sports. For the PlayStation 3, it was Resistance: Fall of Man. For the Xbox 360, it was Kameo: Elements of Power (among others). In some cases, the game is solid in its own right, like Resistance: Fall of Man. In other cases, the game demonstrates crucial new features of the console, such as Wii Sports. And, in some cases, the console just needed an original launch title, as is the case with Kameo: Elements of Power. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the game, but no one really remembers it. It was there to give something to play when the console was released until the real heavy-hitters came out.

Knack is in this third category. It’s not a bad game by any means, it’s just generic, non-descript, and unmemorable. It has some notable flaws, but for the most part they’re not egregious: its greatest flaw is not doing something badly, but rather just failing to do anything really interesting. It’s a platformer game that has a somewhat unique little gimmick, but is otherwise pretty nondescript. It seems like there’s one in every launch lineup. Ultimately, the only reason to play the game is because the PlayStation 4’s launch lineup is pretty comically empty otherwise – if you pre-ordered or stood in line for the console on-launch, it’s not like there’s an abundance of other titles jumping off the shelf to validate your purchase. But once the PlayStation 4’s library fills out a bit, Knack ought to be relegated to obscurity where it likely belongs.

The Game
In a near-future/alternate universe society, mankind has discovered mysterious relics buried within the earth that can provide infinite energy to power cars, planes, and all other mechanical devices. The Doctor in the game has managed to awaken a small golem, named Knack, that can harness the power of these relics to grow to immense sizes and inflict massive damage. A resurgent race of goblins, however, also wants the relics to power their own war machines and destroy the human civilizations. Together with the Doctor and a cast of other characters, Knack must help protect human civilization from the marauding Goblin armies. Along the way, he might even help unravel the mystery of the relics, as well as the curious circumstances behind his own origins.

In terms of gameplay, Knack is primarily a platformer game with a bit more of an emphasis on combat. The player controls the title character, Knack, and can run, jump, punch, and dodge enemy attacks. There are many enemies for Knack to confront, coming in a variety of sizes and with a variety of weapons and attack styles. For the most part, the game is a chain of areas connected by linear corridors; at the end of each corridor is a set of enemies waiting. Once Knack defeats these enemies, he can progress to the next area. Along the way, Knack will acquire Sunstones and relics. Sunstones power Knack’s three super-powered moves while relics supply Knack with health and help him grow to enormous sizes. There are also hidden rooms with crystals, which can be used for transformations to Knack in later playthroughs, and parts, which can be used to construct upgrades to Knack.

The game, broadly, is broken into thirteen chapters, each with around five sections each. There is no hub world, you cannot replay past levels, and when you die you are simply returned to the most recent checkpoint regardless of how many times you die. Each chapter takes roughly an hour (or so) to play, making the game roughly a dozen hours long by my unmeasured estimate. There’s also a co-op mode where a second player can play the part of a miniature ‘Robo Knack’ and help out the main player. Lastly, the game also has a couple social features. You can link up with your friends over PSN to be able to select what items you want when you find items to create new parts, and you can also unlock some new upgrades through the Knack mobile game on Android and iOS.

The Good
Knack isn’t a bad game, but it’s ultimately very nondescript. That means that there’s not much good to say about it, but that’s not because the game is outright bad – it just doesn’t do very much particularly notably. It’s generic, through and through, with one interesting gimmick that doesn’t get used nearly well enough to raise the game’s profile.

Interesting Gimmick
The gimmick of Knack is that Knack can pick up relics and add them to his body. Doing so can increase his size from a couple feet off the ground to several stories tall. Increasing in size has other effects as well: it increases Knack’s maximum health level, it increases the power and range behind Knack’s punches, and it increases the power of Knack’s charged-up super moves. In some places, Knack can use other materials to gain size as well, including metal, wood, and crystals. Each type of alternate material has its own little twist as well; wood, for instance, can be caught on fire and metal can be pulled away by magnets. Relics and other materials can also be used to open doors and passageways. Relics are sometimes used outright as batteries for door motors or other machines, and wood, metal, and other materials occasionally are needed to grant access to the next area as well. Growing in size is the main gimmick throughout Knack.

Overall, as a gimmick, it actually works quite well. Visually, it’s well-executed; the gains in size are continuous rather than consisting of a set of pre-established levels or forms, and Knack’s growth when he obtains more relics or materials is smooth and natural. No matter his size, the game still plays largely the same, so the player doesn’t have to change their control scheme or approach every time Knack grows; the changes are all in the power behind what the player is doing anyway. The power increases are palpable, too. Knack just feels more powerful to control when he’s gained relics. The game has been compared to Katamari Damacy and the way the character grows as you go on, and the comparison is rather apt.

The gimmick also lends itself well to particularly satisfying gameplay. There are many instances throughout the game where a particular enemy is challenging at a certain size, but a few minutes later Knack has grown to the point where the enemy is a piece of cake to plow through. The game does not try to be difficult every moment of play time, which is good: there are areas where the player can just plow through a series of enemies simply because Knack has grown so strong and powerful. When that happens, it’s downright fun to play. Ultimately, the problem with the gimmick is not in the gimmick itself, but rather in the way the game actually uses it; but, we’ll get to that later.

Good Pace and Balance
In every game in which the player can die, there is a cost of death. If you’re immediately returned to the same area and penalized only points, coins, or some other gameplay device, then the cost of death is low. If, on the other hand, you are forced to reload from your last save, have a limited number of lives, or lose equipment, items, and power-ups when you lose or die, then the cost of death is high. Generally, good game design calls for the cost of death to be roughly related to the ease of death. If it’s possible to die quickly, such as in many platformers and shooters, then the cost of death should be low. If death is requires more systematic failure, as in RPGs and strategy games, then the cost of death should be higher.

In all but one respect, Knack pulls this off very well. When you die, you are almost instantly replaced back at the last checkpoint. There’s no waiting, no dying animation, no reloading screen: it’s completely immediate. Hardcore gamers might complain that this kind of pandering makes modern games too easy, but the first goal of most games is to be fun, not hard. Difficulty exists in service of fun because fun involves being challenged appropriately for your current level of ability. Rapid reloading is necessary to maintain engagement in a game where dying can happen quickly, and in Knack, it can happen extremely quickly. No matter Knack’s size, there are enemies that can kill him on one or two hits. For most of these enemies, you’ll have to die against them at least once to even know what that way is. But because the game reloads so quickly, these deaths are not irritated or frustrating, but rather the player’s flow is largely preserved. Or, at least, it would be, except the game makes one significant miscalculation with its checkpoints; had that problem been fixed, Knack would actually be a surprisingly solid, if still generic, platformer game. This one flaw undoes the good done by the rest of Knack‘s quick deaths and rapid respawning.

Aside from the rapid respawning, there are several other elements of Knack that make this pace quite good. The fact that Knack can die quite quickly goes both ways; enemies are often felled in only two to three punches. This means that the gameplay is very fast-paced because any given attack could knock out either Knack or one of the enemies. Battles are over in a matter of seconds, which to a great extent hides the simplicity of the gameplay and the controls. When it only takes a few maneuvers to win or lose a battle, you do not notice as much that there are ultimately only five attacks at your disposal anyway. The fact that both Knack and the enemies can do so much damage encourages strategy and planning, but not in the real-time strategy game sense; there isn’t time to plan out an entire battle strategy. Rather, it encourages the player to know the enemies’ attacks and patterns and react accordingly. You can’t just run in fists flying because the enemy will tear you up; instead, you have to watch and react, very quickly, to what the enemies do, knowing the weak points of the various enemies and using them immediately. It’s a tough order, but the rapid reloading means that you have plenty of opportunity for trial and error.

Low Learning Curve
In pre-release interviews, one of the stated purposes of Knack was for it to be a game the entire family could play to demonstrate that the PlayStation 4 was not just a console for hardcore shooters. In this realm, the game succeeds. It has a masterfully low learning curve; within five minutes of picking the game up, you can be a master at nearly everything that Knack can do. From there, the challenge of the game is not in mastering your own skills, but rather in figuring out how to apply your extremely limited set of skills to a diverse set of enemies and challenges. The game’s controls are easy to pick up and master almost immediately, and while I criticize the game’s shallow gameplay later, it certainly does serve the positive function of keeping the game simple and accessible.

The inclusion of same-room co-op in the form of Robo Knack helps this as well, although ultimately I’m skeptical about how many people will actually use this feature. Still, it’s an easy way to get a second player, such as a child, wife,, or parent, in on the gameplay, and the controls are easy enough for them to pick up pretty quickly. More importantly, the fact that the gameplay of the game never really changes means that the second player can jump in at any point from the first fight to the last without significantly changing what they need to learn or do.

Above-Average Story… by Platformers’ Standards
Generally, platformers aren’t known for their quality stories. The Mario games, at this point, may as well just skip the storytelling and assume the player knows the story. The story in Knack isn’t going to win any Pulitzer prizes, but it’s definitely a step above the stories in most platformer games. It has an interesting cast of characters with well-defined, if archetypical, personalities, and there’s some real empathy that goes on for a couple of the story’s characters. There’s legitimate mystery in the plot as the origins and powers of Knack remain a consistent driving force that plays a key role in the plot as it goes on, eschewing the common platformer trope of hand-waving over the origins of the unique and powerful protagonist. The game even touches, if only for a moment, on some deeper questions about the morality of revenge and war.

Part of this, actually comes from the unique graphical style of the game as well. The characters are largely stylized to look like they came out of a Dreamworks movie, and although overall the graphics do not demonstrate the PlayStation 4’s capabilities, the quality of the character renderings is definitely a step above that of the PlayStation 3. Oftentimes, it does feel like you’re playing a movie (albeit a movie filmed with very odd camera angles). The graphical style and quality makes it much easier to empathize with the characters and fill in the gaps where the storytelling is lacking.

The Bad
For the most part, the flaws in Knack aren’t so much things it did badly, but rather opportunities it missed or things it didn’t bother to do. It’s lazy in certain places, generic and others, and overall isn’t anything special.

Poorly-Used Gimmick
In my opinion, probably the biggest flaw in Knack is that it does not use its gimmick to its full potential. The gimmick itself is strong, and strong enough (in my opinion) to carry the game had it been used correctly. The appeal of the gimmick is that the player, through their own success, powers up their own character to make subsequent battles easier. In some ways, it’s a microcosm of what makes any game entertaining: it’s fun to get better, and part of getting better is achieving and earning upgrades and power-ups to make subsequent battles easier. There are no permanent upgrades in Knack, but this growth system mimics much of the appeal to be had from unlocking new strengths and capabilities.

The problem, though, is that rarely in Knack does it actually feel like the player themselves has achieved or unlocked these power-ups. They’re overly scripted. For the most part, upgrades are unlocked when you reach the end of an area, in order to grow Knack to the size necessary for the next area. The game isn’t designed for Knack to actually grow within areas, but rather each level or area is designed with the game already knowing what size Knack will be. There’s a little variation here as there are a few hidden relics in each area, but the vast majority of the growths and upgrades are scripted to coincide with the introduction of new enemies or an increase in the size of the area. Rarely are relics obtained from enemies (even though the enemies, according to the plot, are themselves powered by relics), so the upgrades come across as rewards for progress rather than for success.

The end result of this is that rather than feeling like a gameplay mechanic, this mechanic instead comes across more as a visual gimmick. For the most part, when Knack grows, the enemies around him grow, so aside from a few weaker enemies peppered in just for the player’s satisfaction, the growth mechanic does not actually change the way you play much. There are many enemies that behave almost the exact same way at different sizes, meaning the same gameplay skills and approaches apply when Knack grows. In one way this is good because the player does not have to learn different approaches for different sizes, but in another way it mitigates what effect growth might have had on the gameplay. Ultimately, it has very little because the game determines when Knack will grow instead of using growth as an actual incentive or reward for the player.

To use an analogy for a moment, think about the Mario franchise. Take, for example, Tanooki Mario in the Super Mario Galaxy games. In some levels, you have to be Tanooki Mario in order to progress; some element of his skillset is necessary to move on. In other areas, however, you’re free to use the Tanooki Suit for its own merits. It’s useful in other areas, it grants a natural power-up, and you have access to it even when gameplay doesn’t directly demand it. You have control over the extent to which you use your power-ups. In Knack, this is completely determined for you. You only grow when it’s necessary for the next level, and you’re forced to shrink back down at the end of every level. You have no real say in the matter, so as a result, the growth is really more of a palette swap than a gameplay mechanic.

Mismanaged Checkpoints
Originally I had this note as part of one of the later sections, but after analyzing the game more closely it became apparent that this is one of the fundamental flaws of Knack. As mentioned above, in every game, there is a cost of death, and good game design calls for the cost of death to roughly match the ease of death. In Knack, this is largely executed well: it’s easy to die, but you respawn instantly. The problem is where you respawn. Put simply, the game’s checkpoints are far too far apart. The game is essentially a linear parade of encounters, so why is there not a checkpoint at the end of every encounter or area? Instead, checkpoints are often a couple minutes apart, forcing the player to replay areas they’ve already mastered several times if there’s one particular enemy or attack that’s holding them up.

If ‘a couple minutes apart’ doesn’t seem egregious to you, think about it this way: there’s a series of three battles, each separated by a corridor with a couple little obstacles to jump over. You get through the first battle, the first corridor, the second battle, the second corridor, and into the arena for the third battle. In the third battle, there’s an enemy with a one-hit knockout attack that pounces as soon as you enter the arena. Boom, you’re dead. Repeat the area, corridor, area, corridor again, this time try to jump over that attack. No, the enemy’s attack is high enough that you can’t jump over it, you’re dead again. Area, corridor, area, corridor again. This time, you try dodging to the right, but you didn’t realize how quickly the enemy launches the attack: you’re dead, again. Area, corridor, area, corridor. This time, you successfully dodge the attack, but right into the waiting attack of another enemy. That other enemy’s easy to take care of, you were just so focused on avoiding the initial attack that you didn’t plan ahead, and you’re dead again. Area, corridor, area, corridor. The areas and corridors preceding the battle aren’t difficult, so repeating them over and over isn’t a matter of the game being challenging, but rather just a matter of being forced to jump through the same hoops over and over to keep trying to get past the same battle.

This is the problem with Knack: the cost of death is too high relative to the ease of death. It’s extremely easy to die in Knack, and for the most part, the game has a low cost of death due to rapid reloading, preserving your power-up meters, restoring your entire health, and maintaining any secret items you found. But the distance between checkpoints means that, practically speaking, the cost of death is actually too high when considered along with how easily and often Knack dies. All of the game’s other positive efforts toward pace and balance are overshadowed by this flaw, making the game even more repetitive than it would have been otherwise.

Overly Linear and Repetitive
But even without that flaw, the game’s plenty repetitive on its own. The entire game can be described as a series of linear corridors separating out areas with enemies. There are often gates at the end of areas to stop you from going forward until you’ve defeated all the enemies, and they pop open the moment the last enemy is defeated. It’s a platformer, so we’ll excuse the lack of realism inherent to this dynamic, but the structure is still very lazy and repetitive. Don’t get me wrong, platformers are often very linear games, but Knack takes this to an extreme. Even in platformers in the Mario games, there are some big areas to explore, branches in the pathways, or, in the case of side-scrolling platformers, alternate exits to find. In Knack, it’s all one long parade through the highly-constrained level. There’s not even a hub world to go back to or any way to replay older missions, meaning that at any given time, there’s literally only one thing to do, with no branches in the pathway, no decisions to make. Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that such a great degree of linearity can never work; the Uncharted series is similarly linear and it’s still extremely entertaining. But in order to execute such linearity well, there has to be a lot of other positive points about the game, and those are missing from Knack.

Given how simple, linear, and repetitive the game’s formula is, it’s actually somewhat remarkable and impressive that it does manage to stay entertaining for a good portion of the game. The game does a decent job of mixing up enemy formations and alignments, playing with the structure of the levels, and including occasional dynamic environments to change around the player’s strategy. Overall, however, the game never stops feeling highly linear and very repetitive.

Simple, Generic, Impersonal
I mentioned earlier that the game has a shallow, light learning curve, and that’s a good thing, but it comes with a dark lining. The fact that the game can be picked up and learned to completion in five minutes means that before long, you find yourself just doing the exact same thing over and over again. Yes, you’re applying a narrow set of skills in different circumstances with different enemies, but the fundamental idea of what you’re doing is too simple to carry an entire game. Even as Knack grows, you’re still given just two slightly different normal attacks and three charged-up attacks. The three attacks are so powerful that they’re essentially ‘get out of this battle free’ cards, so they don’t create different strategies.

Throughout the game, Knack has to shed his relics to get through passageways, open doors, or board aircraft. What that also means is that throughout the game, you’re not just growing as you are in Katamari Damacy, you’re growing and shrinking. This could make for some interesting gameplay if it wasn’t for the scripted size changes I described above, but it also has another impact. In addition to the game being simple, it’s also very impersonal. By that I mean that there is hardly anything unique about your save file or progress through the game. You could switch your save file when you hit Chapter 9 with someone else’s and you’d likely never notice the difference because nothing is specific to your save. The only thing that comes close are the upgrades that you find the parts for, but since they’re randomly distributed the uniqueness is more random than personal. There’s nothing you can do to make your play through of the game different than anyone else, which only further exacerbates the simplicity of the game.

The lack of an interesting application of the game’s core mechanic, the overly simple gameplay, and the lack of any personal customizations combine to make the game incredibly generic. Sure, the gimmick at least makes it visually distinctive compared to the legions of movie tie-in platformers and other truly generic garbage out there, but Knack wasn’t constructed to be garbage. It had potential, it has some nifty features, but ultimately it’s too generic to really be memorable or notable at all.

Some Lazy Mistakes
In addition to all the above omissions, flaws, and missed opportunities, Knack is also guilty of some pretty lazy and basic mistakes. First, the HUD is far too invasive. The health meter is pretty non-intrusive, but underneath it is an indicator of how many special attacks you can execute and how close you are to earning another one. It’s about four times larger than it needs to be to communicate the same information, and on multiple occasions I found it blocking an important area of the screen. Second, just as the checkpoints are too far apart, the saves are also too far apart. The game only saves, as far as I can tell, at the end of each section of a chapter. Those sections can take 10 to 15 minutes to play, which is a lot of time to lose if you need to leave in the middle of a section, or is also a lot of time to continue playing if you want to get to the next save point.

The most egregious, though, is that the game lacks a controllable camera. It’s fine for the camera to be auto-piloted in some areas, but in Knack, it’s never controllable at all. There isn’t even a control mapped to it. This means a few things. First, it means you can never really look at the beautiful world of Knack (the main reason I’m not referencing the game’s world as a positive feature of the game is that you can never really experience it because of the camera). Second, it means that not nearly as much effort was put into creating a world that actually feels full and realistic; because the camera is so constrained, it feels like the world does not even exist outside the constraints of the linear paths the game puts in front of you. Third and most importantly, though, the lack of a control on the camera can have gameplay repercussions. There were multiple times when I was destroyed by an attack that came from off-screen because I couldn’t maneuver the camera to see where an enemy had gone. This is not a common occurrence because typically the combat areas are small enough for the camera to see the entirety of the area at once, but there was definitely a non-trivial number of times when the camera had a direct negative impact on the gameplay.

The Verdict
Ultimately, Knack isn’t really a bad game. It has one very significant flaw that overshadows much of what it does well, and it has one enormous missed opportunity, but it isn’t a bad game. It’s just a generic game. There’s nothing notable about it, there’s nothing particularly memorable about it, and there’s no specific appeal to it. It’s just one of those non-descript filler titles that most launch libraries seem to have to try to disguise the typical weakness of launch lineups. Game developers don’t want to risk millions of dollars developing for a system that might not sell, so it’s natural that launch line-ups will often be filled with low-hanging fruits like generation-spanning releases (like Assassin’s Creed 4) and iterative sequels (like NBA Live 14). Something has to be added in there to fill out the line-up a bit, and with that function in mind, Knack performs adequately. If you bought a PlayStation 4 on launch, it’s worth playing, if only because, well, what else is there to play?

My Recommendation
It’s not like there’s much else to play in the PlayStation 4’s launch line-up, so why not? But once the library fills out a bit, there won’t be any good reason to play Knack.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *