Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Review: Knack (PS4)

While anticipating the launch of the PS4 I couldn't help but look forward to Knack. Amidst the usual offerings of racing, sports, and shooters that typically litter the landscape during a system launch I was happy to see the return of something more in line with my kind of game: the platform action-adventure. The genre seems to be a bit of a dying breed but it is still my favourite. When the PS3 launched, there really wasn't a title that fit this category with Genji: Days of the Blade being the closest. On the Xbox 360 we had Kameo: Elements of Power.

I was also looking forward to this title because the game director, Mark Cerny, has worked on some of my most favourite titles from the past. Major Havoc and Marble Madness were two arcade games I loved and his involvement in Crash Bandicoot, Spyro, Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank and God of War represent the entire arsenal of what I think are the best franchises that are available on the PlayStation format. Needless to say, my expectations were high.

At first I was a little disappointed. Some early rumblings that could be heard out in the wild were getting me down a little as I sat down to immerse myself in the world. Overall I'm happy to report while the game does have a few issues, I still had a fantastic time.

The self-named Knack is a "creature" made up of ancient relics. Discovered by Doctor Vargas, Knack is controlled by you and can grow substantially during the game. He can also take on other natural elements such as ice, wood and metal to enable different abilities.  You are accompanied by Ryder and Lucas, who set out to stop the evil Goblins from attacking the humans. At the same time, the power-hungry Viktor is bent on opening an ancient locked door that supposedly contains a huge cache of ancient relics - enough to give him power over the universe.

The main element of Knack is combat. As you meet different enemies throughout the game you will have to understand their techniques in order to defeat them. Regardless of how big Knack gets (pulling together relics replenishes your health and makes you bigger, a la Katamari Damacy) in most cases it won't take too many hits from the enemy to kill you. You are going to die in this game, and often, but all is not lost. As you progress you collect yellow power crystals. You have three separate meters for them, and when at least one is full you can invoke a special attack which often obliterates all the enemies at once. The good part of this is that even in areas that are frustrating there is a way to get past it eventually. The bad part is that as a crutch you might find yourself using this ability too often, blowing past enemies instead of defeating them the traditional way.

You will also find many "secret" areas with crystal caches, relics, and sometimes parts for special upgrade items. I say "secret" because most of them are blaringly obvious, with visual cues present to tip you off. In some cases, the areas are truly hidden and you must explore areas of this linear adventure before moving on. While the relics and crystals are great, the fun part is finding parts that make possible upgrades throughout the game. I must have either missed many of the parts along the way or perhaps most are only unlockable during a second playthrough of the game. The concept is great, but as I approached finishing the game with only one special upgrade in tow I almost felt like not bothering to look anymore. Rewarding a player more frequently in this regard would have made this a lot better.

The environments will see you traverse the plush outside, head into some caves with the best looking (but yet still obligatory) lava I have ever seen in a game. In fact I was surprised that the lava level also contains a lot of ice and snow (level integration perhaps?) that actually works its way into the gameplay quite nicely. I'll let you discover what that is on your own, but needless to say it's always nice when the environment can play a role in the game beyond just the set dressing.

On the negative side I found the checkpoints to be strangely placed. Sometimes, in tougher areas there was a checkpoint there to allow you to move forward without too much frustration. At other times you would play for a significant amount of time only to get whacked by an enemy and have to replay 20 minutes over so. While this might seem insignificant to gamers that have been playing videogames from the beginning, it's just not something that modern games usually do. The save points are also frustrating requiring you to finish one of the game's thirteen chapters before fully saving, otherwise you will have to repeat areas you have already been through. The music seemed a little lackluster and while the cut scenes attempt to be integrated seamlessly with gameplay, you will find yourself wishing you could actually DO some of the things in the scenes and not just watch them.

Problems aside, I still had a lot of fun playing the game. If you love Ratchet & Clank or the early Jak & Daxter games you will feel right at home here. While the 'magic' that those two former games have bundled on their respective discs isn't here in quite the same quantity there is still a likeable quality here that should not be missed. When you become 'big' in the game you feel powerful  and mighty, and while these moments are too short and far apart they remind us why many of us play videogames in the first place: to be something we are not and escape reality. The reality here is that Mark Cerny still has a 'knack' for making these kinds of games and if the ending is any indication, I have a feeling we might see a sequel.

- Syd Bolton

The Good:
- Demonstrates initial power of the PS4 by having a main character made out of so many particles which makes for interesting graphical effects
- Well paced story with some interesting twists and turns
- Good amount of content, enjoyable experience once you get going

The Bad:
- Some checkpoints are too far apart, leading to frustrating repeated sections
- Many of the cutscenes seem like they could have actually been part of the gameplay
- There is little gameplay beyond the combat sequences. Typical games in this genre tend to have additional elements that are surprisingly not present

Score: 8.5 / 10

Syd Bolton surrounds himself in thousands of classic video games as Canada's top video game collector at the Personal Computer Museum ( in Brantford, Ontario, Canada.