While the vibes around the 2013 launch of the PlayStation 4 were all kinds of positive, there was a definite sour note when it came to the one of the new console’s exclusives – Knack. The game was a widespread disappointment, even more so than the usual launch-title mediocrity since it had seen generally positive feedback prior to launch.
Four years later and Knack has become something of a punchline in the games industry. Not a malicious one, mind you, but it certainly carries some cultural baggage, making the announcement of a sequel at 2016’s PlayStation Experience all the more surprising. So with the game finally out this week, it’s time to find out whether PlayStation genius Mark Cerny and Sony’s Japan Studio have turned the ship around on this would-be franchise.
Knack is Back, But is He Better?
First of all, it’s important to note that comparisons to the first game will be brief in this review. I have never completed the original Knack, and have only played it briefly. As such, most of the criticism here focus on Knack II as it stands on its own. That said, there are a few differences in the two games that I can actually speak to, starting with the visuals. Right off the bat it’s clear that Knack II has much more visual polish than the first game. Particle effects are improved and increased, while character animation is smoother overall, particularly when it comes to characters’ faces. Texture detail is impressive and the art style is manifested beautifully in the game’s engine. Generally speaking, Knack II is a very good looking game.
The only time I found the visuals lacking compared to other 2017 games was in the opening mission of the game, which takes place in the fictional city of New Haven. Environment detail in this area appears much lower than any of the other locations in the game. It’s not a deal-breaker by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s the one section that the game’s Pixar-like visuals break down somewhat. Otherwise, Knack II is visually superior in every way to its predecessor – a game which was already a treat to behold at the time.
You Want a Piece of Me? (Heh)
At its core, Knack II is a brawler, and a great one at that. Utilizing an assortment of punches, kicks, whips and body slams, the player spends most of their time dispatching one group of enemies after another. Thanks to Knack’s (the character, that is) free-flowing form, the moveset is both imaginative and enjoyable to watch. Since he can absorb small artifacts around him to increase in size and strength, the game ramps up the enemies accordingly in a very satisfying way. On top of the basic moveset is a skill tree – a somewhat large one, actually – that further augments and enhances what the player can do. These skill tree abilities are unlocked by earning a blue energy gained from downed enemies. They allow for improvements in speed and power of the basic moves, as well as letting you chain together some attacks in a choreographed manner.
Knack also gains entirely new abilities thanks to some form of telepathy with one of the game’s non-playable characters named Ava. These are dished out at specific moments in the story, smartly adding new mechanics at a comfortable pace without allowing the combat to become stale.
Of course, a fight wouldn’t be any fun if the opponents weren’t interesting. Thankfully, Knack II does an admirable job with its enemy design as well. There are three different types of enemies in the game: ancient robots, wildly sized goblins, and martial-arts-wielding humans. Each type has upwards of ten or more different designs, each with their own attacks, defense stances, and strength. And since most of the gameplay consists of fighting these baddies, their varied nature makes them a joy to fight over the 12-ish hours of playtime. The combat is undoubtedly the core component of the game, and it’s, without question, the best aspect overall.
Brains and Brawn
While the combat is great, Knack II also offers up a number of other mechanical treats to break up the would-be monotony of a hundred combat encounters in a row. There are vehicle sections, puzzle solving, platforming and collectible hunting to help keep the gameplay varied – and each of these is surprisingly good in its own right. Puzzle solving was the most interesting addition to me, particularly because of how well implemented they are. They’re infrequent enough that there was no need to repeat specific puzzle types throughout the game too heavily. On top of that, I found the difficulty of the puzzles to be spot on. Remembering that Knack II is a brawler at heart, too-difficult puzzles would betray that fundamental design and grind the game to a halt. Too-easy puzzles, on the other hand, would feel pointless without the player getting that sweet mini-rush out of feeling like they did something clever. The game walks that fine line masterfully, adding intriguing flavor to Knack’s core gameplay.
Likewise, the vehicle sections and platforming serve a very similar purpose; breaking up the combat and keeping things fresh. Both these were a little less exciting, but were still enjoyable in their own right. The three or four vehicle excursions were each different from each other and provided a bit of catharsis after a tough encounter with brutal enemies by then mowing them down with ease. In the same vein, platforming sections were spread out enough that they could each be somewhat unique and compelling. The actual jumping in Knack II is quite “floaty,” making most of the would-be tough platforming bits relatively easy and inoffensive.
Finally, the collectibles were a mechanic I didn’t expect to see, though I ended up enjoying them. Like the combat upgrades, collectibles in the game provide actual mechanical upgrades to Knack as a character that make the game more fun. As such, finding these items became a fun challenge and greatly increased my desire to explore the world as best I could. Simply put, Knack II is fantastic when you’re actually playing it. Something that, alas, can’t be said of the rest of the experience.
The biggest problem with Knack II is undoubtedly its writing. And while, no, you’re probably not looking to pick up the game for its story and dialogue, it’s weak enough to the point of actually being a detractor from what makes Knack II great. First and foremost, however, it must be said that the overall story is not the problem. The plot is interesting enough to keep the game going. Nor is the problem with the actual characters – all of whom seemed decently well voiced and performed to the point of genuine likability. Where the whole thing breaks down is pretty much anytime a character opens their mouth. The dialogue is straight up weak.
Imagine blending up every Saturday Morning Cartoon, My-First-Chapter-Book, and ‘90s video game script in an industrial blender. What you’re left with is a boring mixture of clichés, tropes, and bad jokes that was then poured over the framework of Knack II. An intriguing story and interesting characters are all shoved by the wayside thanks to the way that they speak to each other. Before each line is uttered aloud, you know exactly what the character is going to say because you have heard all of these lines hundreds of times before in “for-kids” content. Clichés and tropes can be well implemented if used sparingly – not so much if they’re poured in with a firehose. Once again, given the medium, if a game has to have an achilles heel, you’d probably want it to be the writing, but it’s unfortunate that, in this case, it ends up actively detracting from the rest of a great game.
It also bears mentioning that the game gives off the feeling of being stretched for time somewhat. By the final two hours or so it starts to drag a little and fulfills another video game trope: “This isn’t even my final form!” However, this only proved to be a somewhat minor extension, and although it breaks the flow of its story somewhat to do it, it doesn’t hurt the experience much.
Overall, Knack II is a solid game; one that undoubtedly improves upon its predecessor and stands strong as a fun 12 hour romp on its own. It definitely stumbles a fair bit when it comes to its writing, but the incredible art style, engaging combat, interesting puzzles and intriguing story and characters manage to pull it through. It has all the trappings of a proper sequel and I hope to see this fledgling franchise continue.