Beware of Surprises in Small Packages: Knack Review
Imagine a world where archaeology yields more than ancient bones and treasures to merely display in museums; where everything around the globe is now powered by ancient relics instead of batteries and electricity. This is the fantastical world that developers SCE Japan Studio and Cerny Games have built for Knack, a 3D action platformer for the PlayStation 4, suitable for one or two players.
As the game begins, players are introduced to Dr. Vargas, a scientist who’s devoted much of his career to researching ancient relics that are now being used as an alternative to electrical energy. All of Dr. Vargas’s labour culminates with Knack, a sentient being crafted from these ancient relics, who is being shown off to a billionaire security mogul (Viktor) and his associates. The reason for this show-and-tell is the recent Goblin attack in the Highland Crags. Dr. Vargas successfully shows his audience that Knack may be a secret weapon against the invading Goblins, and an expedition is put together to investigate the surprising arsenal of advanced weaponry and tanks that was being used by the goblins in their invasion. Join Knack, Dr. Vargas, and their group of adventurers as they explore Goblin territory, trying to solve the mystery of the goblins’ weapon supplier, all the while searching for more information on ancient relics and how Knack came to be.
The first level serves as a bit of research presentation as well as a tutorial for players. As you guide a cute little Knack through various platforms, fighting robots, avoiding lasers and electrified mechanical platforms, Dr. Vargas explains how Knack came to be. Through gameplay, you’ll learn that as Knack comes across floating relic pieces he’ll incorporate those pieces into himself and grow bigger, slowly becoming a much more powerful version of himself. Even though Knack can gain in stature and power, he also has the ability to shrink down in size (by shedding relic pieces) in order to navigate through smaller areas, such as ducts and tunnels. Regardless of size, Knack truly packs a punch and can defeat enemies simply by hitting them, jump-attacking, or roll-attacking them.
Additionally, Knack has a few Super Moves that he can use once he powers-up by absorbing sunstone energy (found in yellow crystals scattered around the arenas). For up-close-and-personal combat, Knack can send a Shockwave, an explosive blast of relic pieces. Another useful attack in close-quarters is Storm, which turns Knack into a mini-tornado of relics used to wipe out foes in the area. Finally, for those pesky opponents that are a distance away, Knack has a ranged Super attack called Blast which can sends out a missile blast of relics at multiple enemies.
To keep things interesting, not only does Knack have the ability to change his size (by absorbing new relic pieces to grow and gain health, or shedding relics that can then be used to energize items such as generators and elevators), but he can also change into different variations of himself. Throughout different chapters, Knack will make use of items in his environment to turn into new versions, such as the Abominable Knack (with ice crystals), Stealth Knack (using clear crystals), a fiery Knack (using wood pieces that he then sets fire to), and the colossal Knack who’s able to pulverize enemy structures and tanks.
Players will have to keep their wits about them, as the levels are designed to keep players on their toes. Not only do you have to defeat baddies that are hell-bent on killing you seven ways till Sunday, but you also need to navigate environmental hazards and pitfalls, such as crumbling floors, platforms that’ll literally move out from under you, icy trails that’ll make you skid to your doom, and deathtraps that are activated by motion. Luckily, within the same levels are relic pieces that you can absorb into Knack to make him bigger and replenish much-needed health (indicated by a life bar in the upper left corner), as well as sunstones (often hiding in plain sight) that will help you power-up those devastating attacks for critical combat. Players need to be extra careful though, because as the game progresses, those relic pieces become harder and harder to find, while the enemies become more devious and pack some serious weaponry.
Even on the Easy difficulty (an oxymoron that is all too apparent in certain areas), the enemy AI is tricky, and you’ll be asking yourself, “Ok, who to kill first, the Goblin with the boomerang, the archer, or the dude with grenades?” As you play through the story, you’ll find that you often have to delicately balance your health and using power-ups, as the sunstones are frequently accessible (but often require a fair amount to fill up one single gauge), whereas relics can be few and far between.
Players won’t only be on the lookout for relic pieces. The developers made this game a looter’s paradise, and have ensured that you’ll want to look in every nook and cranny, and even punch at random (if not all) walls and barriers to look for hidden areas that hold collectibles. Find all of the parts required for Gadgets and Crystal Relics to gain rare power-ups. There are a variety of Gadgets that will give you useful tools, such as a Transmuter that will have sunstones release relics instead of energy, or detection devices that will indicate when Knack is close to relics (the Parts Detector) or hidden rooms (the Secret Detector). On the other hand, Crystal Relics will imbue Knack with additional powers, turning him into a different version that you can use to replay the game.
Luckily, the developers have created beautiful visuals that won’t grow stale and often encourage you to go exploring. Crisp and clear visuals, in conjunction with defined textures in various objects and surfaces, make many environments – especially outdoor ones – look extremely realistic, from the individual blades of grass, to dimpled boulders, and glistening ponds. The lighting department deserves extra kudos, as Knack’s body is seamlessly mirrored in his shadows and reflections – down to each individual piece. There are certain moments where you might just have to stop and take in that extra attention to detail – like when light dances off of Knack’s crystal pieces, creating a kaleidoscope of glittering colour on the walls and floors.
The main cast is just as well-designed, with character models that are reflective of their personalities. In fact, each character looks his or her role, with Dr. Vargas looking like the kindly and wise grandfather figure, Viktor coming off as a sleazy billionaire with his slick hair and sleek suits, and Katrina being portrayed as the competent, kick-ass woman worthy of being Viktor’s Security Specialist – just to name a few. Knack himself oozes self-confidence, whether he’s in his diminutive ‘child’ phase (with big black eyes and tiny limbs), or the intimidating punk in his ‘adult’ phase (where he’s given a Mohawk and spiky edges down his spine and forearms). Even the enemy models are varied enough to keep things interesting, with foes wielding increasingly challenging weapons (such as bazookas or spears that send out electrical currents).
As if the gorgeous graphics weren’t enough to draw you in, the sound department provides extra impetus to give the game your undivided attention. Music plays softly in the background, beckoning you to continue the adventure, until it rises in a crescendo during intense moments, building that adrenaline rush as you fight a bunch of baddies. Each weapon, be it laser beams, grenades, energy pulses, has its individual sound effect. Oftentimes it’s the subtle sounds, like Knack’s running on tiles or sliding down a dirt slope, that bring the realism to a new level. While the game is amazing to play in surround sound, one thing that truly stood out is the use of the PS4 controller’s integrated speaker, from which you can hear the blocky rattling of the relic pieces falling into place or a happy jingling sound (imagine Tinkerbell when she sprinkled pixy dust) as sunstone energy flies into you.
Let’s not forget the voice actors, who do a superb job of selling their characters, with Knack often sounding like a self-assured enforcer, Viktor sounding like a silky smooth-talker who’s hiding a secret agenda, and even Lukas, your typical teenage boy who’s excited to be in the thick of things, and eager to to show the adults that he’s smarter than he looks.
Unfortunately, the game isn’t without a couple of deficiencies, the most debilitating one being the awkward camera angles. As the camera automatically adjusts as you play, oftentimes it’ll swing right in front of you, so you can’t see where you ought to go – and more importantly, you won’t see the enemies standing right there, off-camera, until they attack you. Additionally, while some clipping issues are understandable, it’s rather irritating when enemy fire goes through solid boulders or crates to hit you (without so much as scratching your seemingly secure shield). Last, but certainly not least, the game suffers from long load times, where you’re stuck staring at a black screen with a tiny Knack in the corner running…running…running.
If you want to share the load (both good and bad), you have the option of having a friend join in the gameplay locally. During Co-Op play, Player 1 will control the regular Knack, while Player 2 plays a second silver Knack, all on the same screen. This would be a good mode to play with younger kids who can’t quite get a handle on the controls, with the adult as Player 1. Co-Op is designed so that if Player 2 lags behind, a gauge will count down to when the Player 2 will teleport to Player 1’s side, ensuring that you can move forward with gameplay regardless of Player 2’s skill. Just to mix things up, you can beat up on each other without taking damage – but you can push each other off of cliffs!
Overall, Knack is a wonderful adventure to embark on by yourself or with a friend. It’s filled with an intriguing origin story to uncover, many cunning enemies to kill, pitfalls to navigate around, and a titular hero who embodies a perfect balance of strength and vulnerability, with enough variation to keep players hooked from beginning to end. If you love a charming story and enjoy challenging platformers, Knack is definitely a title to add to your next gen library!
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