I went into Knack with hope in my heart. A quick check on Wikipedia confirmed that the critical consensus was not great. But I figured, this is kind of a cutesy action platformer, right? I should dig it. Only I’m not. I’m really not. Because Knack is, at least on the gameplay side, incredibly bland. It also sits quite firmly on the wrong side of the difficulty fence.
For all the frustration I’ve felt while playing Knack, it’s been something of a joy to watch. The cutscenes are fun, and remind me very much of a second-tier CGI film. Like Astro Boy or Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. It’s super colourful, the plot is light but not too fluffy, and Knack is an all-around fun character. It’s no golden-era Pixar, but it’s definitely adequate. Which is good, because there are lots of cutscenes. I’m willing to bet that if I didn’t lose so much time to dying repeatedly, I think there may have been more cumulative time spent watching cutscenes than in actual gameplay.
When the gameplay does roll around, it’s got a solid premise. You ramble around, punching enemies and jumping up platforms, occasionally stopping to use a super move or find a secret treasure. You know, standard stuff. Knack even has this sweet evasion slide that looks awesome due to the fact that he’s made out of a collection of floating baubles. Even cooler is the conceit that the game is built around: as you find more material (the exact substance varies based on the level), Knack grows bigger and stronger. Kind of like if the Katamari rolled around punching people instead of assimilating them. And this is basically what got me on board.
But while the ideas are sound, the execution is deeply flawed. Probably the most egregious problem is Knack’s health. Little Knack will generally be killed in one or two hits, depending on the type of attack. However, as you accumulate material, his life bar grows with his physical form. However, this means absolutely nothing. Regardless of how long the life bar has extended, Knack will still get killed in one or two hits. Now, this is definitely because the enemies tend to scale up to about the size you should be, but it still feels like a massive fake-out. I mean, if he’s going to explode with one solid whack anyway, why bother enlarging the life bar at all? The one-hit kills I can live with, but the misdirection is something I find very annoying.
The next major problem is that the level design, and by extension the gameplay flow, is completely bland. The stages are vibrantly coloured and have beautiful backgrounds that go on forever, but the actual playfield is just a long series of samey rooms chained together with mostly empty hallways. On occasion, a hallway will contain a number or traps or ledges to jump up. Every room will have an escalating enemy encounter. So say the first has a sword goblin. The next has a an archer goblin. The next has a sword goblin and an archer goblin. The next has a sword goblin and an archer goblin on a higher ledge. So on an so forth, occasionally introducing a new enemy and thus beginning the cycle anew. Colour me bored
I’ve played many games that have roughly the same or an even simpler formula, but for some reason, Knack rings hollower than most. Possibly because combat is janky and frustrating. Enemies in this game are way too skilled. They’ll do a two-tier attack and then immediately roll out of the way, where an enemy in nearly any other game will leave a short opening between attack and evasion. Since you’re often forced to trade blows, and enemy attacks seem to have higher priority than Knack’s you’ll find yourself dying a whole lot. I’ve found that usually the best strategy is to just barrel towards the closest enemy and hope that your punch lands before they begin their attack. Knack also has a dive attack that would be nice and cheap if it had a little more range (or homed in like Sonic), but it attacks almost straight down and he loses a lot of forward momentum when jumping, so you still need to be right up in an enemy’s face to use it.
If you get really stuck somewhere, Knack also has three special moves that he can use to clear a room. These eat up his special meter, which is replenished by smashing sun stones. This is all standard video game stuff, and is perfectly fine. The thing that bugs me is that the size of the sun stone that you break has absolutely no bearing on how much it fills up your meter. Sometimes a tiny sun stone will give you a huge boost. Usually the giant ones barely register. It makes absolutely no sense and drives me completely bonkers.
In all fairness to Knack, I’m only on chapter four, so things might even out a little as I move on and more power-ups are introduced. And the boss fight at the end of chapter three was significantly more fun than the bulk of stage leading up to it. So the question remains: if I didn’t pay anything for this game and I’m not really enjoying it, why am I still playing? It’s the simple matter of the promise of getting to be the kaiju. During the home stretch of chapter three, Knack grew to roughly the size of a small house, and just the concept of being a giant wrecking machine made the game more enjoyable for me. Yes, Knack still explodes in one or two hits, but punching tanks instead of goblins filled me with glee, and knocking down walls is always a great time. So really, I just want to see it through to find out how big Knack’s going to get. If my earlier comparison to Katamari Damacy holds true, at least the game should end on a pretty high note.
I mean, yeah, I could just look it up on the internet or whatever, but that would be no fun at all. Even though Knack can be somewhat frustrating, there are some bright spots peppered in there, so until I get really frustrated, I’m going to try to see it through. Thank goodness I opted not to play on Hard mode though!