While Mario may have welcomed tens of millions of new players into the fold with his brand of accessible platforming, platformers haven’t always been the forgiving games we know today. In fact, as the one-time most popular genre, many platformers used to be absolutely rock hard, with pixel perfect jumps requiring perfect timing, and enemies that killed you a single hit.
Knack, arguably the newly launched PS4’s most interesting title, is a game that puzzled many a “hardcore” gamer when it was first announced. Revealed at the same time as the Playstation 4 itself, during the pomp and circumstance of a spectacular event in New York, Knack was the game Sony chose to lead with – and it sent a powerful message. With colourful graphics, Pixar style characters, and through being a platformer itself, Knack was a statement to people like us, that Sony would strive to provide games beyond racers and shooters, and appeal to the wider market with its new system. In a nutshell, Knack was something different. But then, the inevitable happened. The “gamers” turned on it. “Knack. More like Kack”, they said. But they were wrong.
A 3D Action/platformer, Knack is a game that harks back to the old days of gaming. Without much in the way of puzzles waiting to be conquered, this is a game that relies on reflexes and persistence, as you take control of the titular robot, Knack, and guide him through the game’s many levels, bashing the enemies as you go. A short adventure, this isn’t, with dozens of lengthy stages waiting to be completed, and a full film’s worth of cutscenes to further the story.
Telling the story of the little robot-thing that could, Knack himself is at the centre of the plot. Rather than being high technology, Knack is actually made out of an ancient artefact, known as relics. Originally discovered in an ancient ruin by a scientist, who also plays a lead role in the story, it’s hoped that Knack could be the difference maker in a war between the humans and the goblins. Only things aren’t always as easy as they seem. One of the human’s main arms suppliers, a kind of poor man’s Tony Stark who builds defensive robots, isn’t all that happy that Knack seems to be getting all the attention – and so follows a “will he, won’t he” story, as you try to repel the Goblin invasion, while deciding who’s the more dangerous – the Goblins, or your friends.
In terms of features, Knack also, somewhat sadly, claims the award for being the only next-gen launch title to support same-console co-op play. Despite the promise of new hardware letting developers make bigger and better games, free of programming constraints, it’s a little bit depressing that out of every next-gen exclusive, only Knack bothers to let two players play together – but if you’ve bought a PS4, and are looking to get your friends and family in on the action, it’s a big string in Knack’s bow.
Not least because you’ll need all the help you can get. Playing through Knack’s levels, you’ll regularly come across opponents – trolls, robots, and other baddies that need disposing of. Despite being an all powerful ancient relic, Knack’s actually a pretty weak little guy, as he can absorb only a handful of hits before exploding into his constituent parts. To make things trickier, Knack also has very little in the way of ranged attacks – he does have a dash attack, where he leaps into the air, curls into a ball, and then dives at an enemy, but it doesn’t have the greatest of ranges. When you’re up against enemies that can throw anything from arrows to grenades and even rockets at you, with a much greater range than you have, you’ve got to be careful – especially when you’re as much of a weed as Knack is. Luckily, with a second player in tow, things get a lot easier. All you have to do is send them in to draw the enemy’s attention, and absorb their shots, while you sneak in around the outside, as even if your co-op partner gets killed, it won't re-spawn you to the last checkpoint. It’s a nice way of making things that little bit easier – and a God send in some stages.
But although Knack may start off as a bit of a wuss, he doesn’t stay that way. On beating up enemies, smashing crates, and generally destroying stuff, you’ll find relics that Knack can absorb, making them a part of him. The more relics you collect, the bigger and badder Knack gets, with the ability to withstand more damage. Absorb enough, and during some levels you'll end up playing as a gigantic version of Knack, who can toss tanks and cars around with ease, swatting trolls away like flies. As an added bonus, when you’re playing in co-op, your buddy can even help top your health up when you’re damaged at the touch of a button, without taking anything off theirs - even if they do end up running around behind you, arms outstretched like he’s desperate for a hug while he’s doing it.
While it does get repetitive, there’s still a lot to like about Knack. Bright and colourful, everything looks crisp and cheery (even when you’re running around the inside of a dank cave), and with plenty of different types of enemies, it certainly never feels like a button masher. With collectibles waiting to be found (usually hidden behind conspicuously cracked walls), and a cool match three puzzle game, Knack's Quest, that's available as a free download on Android/iOS devices that lets you unlock collectible pieces that can be used in the game, there's plenty of reason to come back, too, even if it does seem like a missed opportunity that it isn't available on the PS4 or Vita. As the only co-op next-gen exclusive, it’s also pretty much the only contender when it comes to a game to play together on the PS4, too (bar LEGO Marvel, although that’s cheaper on the current gen systems). In fact, there’s only one real problem with Knack – it’s so incredibly hard.
When we say hard, we mean hard – harder than Ross Kemp replacing his teeth with rusty nails before gnawing through a tree. With Knack only able to take two, or at most three hits before going the way of the dodo, it’s an incredibly unforgiving game at times, if only because it’s so hard to dodge your enemy’s attacks. Most attacks don’t give you that much of a chance to avoid them – with the few that do, by slowing the game down into slow motion to give you time to knock the right analogue stick and slide out of the way, being one hit kills if you don’t shift in time. It gets even harder when it tries to shake things up, too. For some levels, you’ll have to sneak past some deadly lasers playing as stealth Knack, who’s basically made out of glass – which lets you get past undetected, but also means he can’t take more than a single hit. Coming up against some enemies as stealth Knack is absolutely no fun – and worse still, the second player gets unceremoniously booted during these sections, before miraculously reappearing when you switch back to your normal self.
And perhaps that’s the saddest thing about Knack. While Sony may have set out with the best of intentions, they seem to have listened too much to the vocal minority who crucified Knack before they even had chance to see what it was like. Because the only reason we can think of for making what was allegedly meant to be a family friendly game so incredibly hard, would be to placate the “hardcore”, and the journalists who’d be reviewing the game. Taking Knack from being a “family” game (and therefore, naff in their eyes) to being a retro platform style challenge was presumably an attempt at making it accepted – but it hasn’t worked. Knack has still been slated – unfairly – elsewhere, in spite of the difficulty, yet it ran the risk of alienating its initial target market in the process.
Luckily, while Knack may be hard in places, it’s not an insurmountable challenge. For the most part, the checkpoints are close together, meaning your inevitable (and plentiful) deaths don’t set you back that far, while playing in co-op makes things a lot easier (and the Easy mode lets you take a few extra hits). With some enjoyable co-op, spectacular scenery, and as an original platformer - something we don't see enough of these days - Knack is a game let down only by its difficulty. Out of all the PS4 launch titles, this is the one to get - especially if you want to play with a friend.