Technology… the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.
“The following is a contributor post by the Hopeful Sega Mage.”
The launch of a new console is always a stressful event for all concerned. Consumers, game retailers, publishers and of course, developers. I always think developers have one of the most important jobs of a console launch as they are the ones helping to sell the system via the software they develop. Talk of vague terms such as ‘blast processing’ and ’emotion engine’ doesn’t sell consoles. Super Mario World sells consoles. Halo sells consoles. Tetris sells consoles.
The launch of the PlayStation 4 in November 2013 was a landmark event for Sony. The PlayStation 3 had lost out to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 due to it’s initial price, awkward install times and it’s inferior online functions. With the PlayStation 4, Sony were looking to take back the advantage they had during the PlayStation 1 and 2 days. The Xbox 360 and the Wii had beaten them for sales during the seventh generation of consoles, but Sony had a plan for getting back on top in the console wars. Sony’s idea was to focus on accessibility… worrying less about technology and more about engaging the player.
A big part of that was designer and director Mark Cerny. An influential designer, programmer and creative consultant with over thirty years experience, Cerny was unveiled as the lead architect of the Sony PlayStation 4 in February 2013. The PlayStation 3 had suffered from complex architecture that made game development tricky and Sony were keen not to repeat that error again. By bringing in Cerny, Sony would have an experienced hand to help them with designing games for their new platform and guiding those developers that had struggled with programming games for the PlayStation 3.
Mark’s idea was like ‘what about [a] Crash Bandicoot for PS4?’ when he suggested the concept of Knack. We were like yeah we hate to see all the PS4 games being FPS or action-adventure or very photorealistic, you know big-budget blockbuster games. And you know people like these games but these are not the only kinds of games that people can have fun with.
-Shunhei Yoshida (Sony Worldwide Studios), Interview with Edge, April 2013
As well as working as the lead architect for the PlayStation 4, Cerny worked as a director on Knack, which was to be one of the PlayStation 4’s launch titles. Given his work on Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon, Cerny knew that a mascot driven, story based game could be a big seller for the new system, as well as lead to further games and associated merchandise. Plus Knack would give Sony’s launch lineup some variety, as it consisted mainly of first person shooters (Killzone, Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4) and sports games.
Rather, I think Knack aspires to be the “accessible” game in PS4’s launch lineup: The family-friendly one. It’ll be the leverage that lets the gadgethead in the family justify being an early PS4 adopter because ‘hey, look at this cute game the kids can enjoy (when I’m not playing Drive Club)’.
-Jeremy Parish, What does Knack say about PlayStation 4?, US Gamer, 26/07/2013
The intention for Knack was to make a game that would appeal to everyone. Cerny name checked games like Crash, Ratchet & Clank and Jak and Dexter when talking about Knack – the idea being that Knack would appeal to gamers who grew up playing those games as well as enticing new gamers. Those that had grown up with the PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 now had kids of their own and a game like Knack could be the game that would allow them to share their hobby with their children.
I want to build an on-ramp that looks like a ‘console game’… Knack is a story driven adventure. It has gameplay which, when you turn it up to hard, satisfies hardcore gamers. But at the same time on easy it can be enjoyed by my eight-year-old nephew who doesn’t play console games.
-Mark Cerny, quote from MCV interview, 18 July 2013
The story of Knack is based around an ongoing war between humans and goblins. In the future, humans have made great technological advances thanks to harnessing energy from Relics and have been able to drive the goblins back. However, when the goblins suddenly attack the humans with advanced weaponry, the humans call a meeting to decide how to investigate. Dr Vargas unveils Knack, a creature who is built from Relics and is able to amass them to increase his size and strength, as well as his array of powers.
This begins the adventure, with Knack, Dr Vargas, his nephew Lucas and the explorer Ryder fighting the goblin hordes as well as evil billionaire Victor and his assistant Katrina, who want to gain access to giant Relics in order to control the world. If you think this sounds like something from a Saturday morning cartoon aimed at kids, then I would agree. With Knack, Cerny was aiming to capture the imagination of children who watched cartoons and could be drawn into gaming via a storyline and characters familiar to them.
However, Knack never caught the imagination in the same way its inspirations did. While gamers young and old lapped up Crash and fondly reminisce about Spyro, Knack was given a cold reception and pushed aside. Game shops are full of second hand copies of Knack and you can buy it new for a heavily discounted price, even taking its age into account.
So why didn’t Knack catch on? That was the question I asked myself when deciding to review Knack. Why didn’t PlayStation 4 owners take this new franchise to their hearts – was it down to the character not appealing to the masses? Was the game aimed at the right demographic? Was Cerny right in saying Knack could appeal to both experienced and novice gamers?
Knack is a good looking game, but it’s not going to be remembered as a great graphical showcase for the PlayStation 4. There’s a great deal to like about Knack’s graphics – the bright colours, the cartoony designs that wouldn’t look out of place on Nicktoons, the amount of detail involved in the Relics themselves – but there is nothing that will define a new generation of console gaming here. Nothing blew me away about Knack and visually, for a launch title, that’s a problem. A launch title’s job is to sell the new console to the consumer and I don’t think Knack could have done that. It didn’t do it for me all those years ago either – when I played the demo of Knack in GAME, my first impression was how much I liked the PS4 pad, with little thought given to Knack….
Maybe I’m being harsh. To be fair to Knack, the jump between generations is much smaller than it was in say 1997, when we went from Mortal Kombat to Tekken and I feel like the gulf between gamer expectations and graphical technology is getting smaller and smaller. Furthermore, Knack’s graphics won’t date badly as the aforementioned games did – I feel like Knack’s animated graphics have been designed with longevity in mind and they look good considering it’s been five years since Knack came out. Think back to other consoles you’ve owned – how many games still look fresh five years after release?
Normally, when I draft these reviews, I enjoy the Audio section – I get to trawl Youtube and pick my favourite track from the game to put into the review. However Knack didn’t afford me that pleasure… it’s a very sparse game in terms of audio. There is no in-game music and only some by-the-numbers orchestra music during the pause menu. I struggled with the lack of music to be honest – to me, a game’s soundtrack is one way of connecting with you. It’s part of the bond you form with the game and a big factor in enjoying a game. Think back to Castlevania or Mega Man… can you imagine those games with no music?
The lack of music leaves only the voice acting. It’s well delivered and sounds very smooth… but it’s very dry. I can’t see children or adults enjoying Knack’s voice acting as it’s too earnest, too straight. There isn’t any hook to the characters – they all sound like you would expect them to, working their way through Knack’s detailed dialogue with little flash or sizzle. The voice acting is by no means bad, but there is little to spark the imagination. Voice acting should tell you about a character’s personality, their quirks, their flaws, their desires… by the end of a scene, you should be learning about the character and want to know more. Knack’s voice acting is hollow, like a well-rehearsed reading of a play. Everything is technically fine, but there is nothing pulling the player in.
Knack’s gameplay is it’s biggest issue. I think the problem is, Knack’s gameplay wouldn’t appeal to anyone, whether they are hardcore gamers or newcomers.
For the hardcore gamer, there is nothing new here and what’s here isn’t terribly interesting. Essentially, Knack is a 3D brawler where you progress through levels destroying enemy minions and working your way to the next save point. This is a fairly dated style of game and Knack offers no frills to this concept, bar finding Relics to improve Knack’s size and strength. Think of the likes of God Of War, Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, games of a similar age to Knack. They all have different gameplay aspects to keep the game interesting… Knack offers nothing except a few weak puzzle and platforming sections to take you away from the core gameplay. Even learning attack combinations seems pointless as the majority of Knack’s foes can be defeated by mashing the buttons or using an aerial spin attack not dissimilar to the 3D Sonic games.
I also think the repetitive gameplay would put off younger gamers too. I play all games on normal setting generally and while I generally found Knack to be straightforward, I also had to acknowledge what a slog it was to complete. Aside from it’s outdated gameplay style of mashing enemies until they disappear, Knack plays a bit like an old school coin-op game. It’s main challenge is to throw waves of enemies at you, hoping to wear you down and catch you out. It reminded me of a game I’ve reviewed previously, Golden Axe III, in that, the challenge is a battle of attrition – you just need to survive the grind of enemy attacks. Thing is, Golden Axe III is probably forty-five minutes long… Knack clocks in at around twelve to fifteen hours and the lack of variety in gameplay is really noticeable after a few hours.
While most older gamers are more persistent, younger gamers might struggle to keep interest. They wouldn’t be helped by Knack’s save point system – the automatic save points are spread surprisingly thin sometimes, meaning that a failure to beat a wave of enemies can lead to a long trip back to the previous savepoint.
I can’t fault Knack’s execution – the controls handle fine and the fixed camera works fairly well. However, the game simply isn’t fun to play and that’s a huge flaw for a game that is meant to appeal to children. I’m surprised that Knack’s gameplay turned out the way it did. While researching Mark Cerny, I learned that he had inspired the ‘Cerny Method’, a set of rules to bear in mind while creating a game. One of the rules is to get consumers to test the first level created of any new game in development to see if they enjoy it or not. If the game doesn’t appeal to those playing, then the advice is to abandon it and move to the next project, to avoid wasting development time. I’m not sure if the Cerny Method was applied to Knack, but I genuinely don’t understand how it could have survived this rule.
I can’t fault the amount of effort that has gone into Knack’s story – the frequent cutscenes looks great and really flesh it out. There’s no obvious plot holes in the story and it doesn’t drag at any point.
Problem is, the plot isn’t that exciting. Knack’s story for me, doesn’t please anyone. There is very little humour in the game, yet the cartoon feel of the story and the graphics means you can’t take it too seriously. Furthermore, though I did like the cast of Knack, they’re too stoic to warm to. Knack himself is a good example of this – while he’s cute in his initial form, in his powered up form he’s serious and bland. It’s a shame as the characters in Knack do feel like they are being restrained – I do wonder how different the story would have been if there had been a big twist or if more free reign had been given to the voice actors.
To me, Knack’s story is too sanitized, too clinical. It feels like it was drafted in committee, based off the findings of a focus group set up to find ideas for a mascot game. At no point does the story ever sparkle or come to life. It’s simply a dull, constant hum from start to finish.
Knack does have three difficulty modes as well as hidden collectibles to find, but truthfully the thought of replaying Knack makes me shudder. It felt like a struggle to play through the game once and I can’t imagine anyone but the most ardent trophy hunter returning to play it again.
If someone can get into Knack, then there is a good twelve to fifteen hours of game there to be played… and it feels like it. Every level gave me the feeling of “Is it over yet?” – I was actively looking for checkpoints just so I felt like I had made some progress. When playing a game, I will normally stay up until I hit a checkpoint as I hate replaying sections of games, but with Knack I just had to accept defeat and start again the next day.
Knack is an easy game to pick up and play, but I do think the limited and repetitive gameplay would turn most gamers off early on. I’m not sure I would have played Knack to completion if I wasn’t reviewing it. Nevertheless, it’s a simple game to play and not a game that would require a great deal of explanation to play. It’s more a question of sticking with it.
As mentioned earlier, Knack is widely available in retailers. It’s not expensive either – I reckon you could easily get it for under ten pounds new and much less second hand. If you’re a PSN Subscriber, then chances are you already have Knack – it was one of February 2018’s free monthly games.
I can’t call Knack unique – as stated earlier, it takes a lot of it’s cues from brawlers (Devil May Cry, God of War) and family friendly adventures (Crash, Spyro). Cerny himself noted that Katamari Damacy inspired Knack’s gimmick of gaining in size and strength by collecting Relics.
I’m surprised by how dated Knack feels in comparison to most of those games mentioned… playing Knack takes me further back, back to the PlayStation 1 era. In a way, Knack is unique… it’s an unabashed throwback to an era that has long since gone… released during a era when gaming is advancing quickly.
My Personal Grade: 3/10
You might be surprised to hear that I don’t hate Knack… I just see it as a misfire, proof that sometimes, things do go wrong. After nearly 3,000 words pulling Knack apart, I can still see some good in it, some redeemable qualities. I like Knack’s world – the characters and their surroundings deserve more than the repetitive gameplay and sterile plot.
I only hate games if they deserve it… whether they be a cheap cash-in, a broken, buggy release that publishers have rushed out in order to make some money or a game that is outright offensive in terms of playability and value. I feel like Knack was made with good intentions, though – a lot of thought and effort did go into Knack, but I can’t help feeling that the developers overthought things. Call it conjecture, but I think Knack’s programmers and designers stuck to their project outline too rigidly. They were told to make a simple, story-based game designed to stand out on a launch lineup and they focused too much on the ‘simple’ aspect of the gameplay, to the point where Knack feels dumbed down. Worse still, Knack feels almost cynical at times… all the tropes of a kid-friendly franchise are there. The ‘mascot character’, a kid, a scientist, an explorer, a stereotypical ‘bad guy’ character…
A final thought… as a parent myself, I didn’t even entertain the idea of letting my children play Knack. Partly because I live in fear of my saved games getting wiped (and if that had happened, I couldn’t have replayed Knack again) but partly because I knew it wouldn’t appeal to my children. My kids love playing Lego Worlds, not with the intention of making any progress but simply to play in a virtual Lego world, customizing buildings, costumes, characters, weapons… everything really. Knack doesn’t offer that level of freedom or chaos and that, in my opinion, is Knack’s big failing. It’s an adventure game with no adventure in it. There is nothing to discover or experience in Knack… you simply keep trudging on until the end of the game.
The knack of technology shouldn’t be so we don’t experience the world, new technology should enhance our experiences. Sadly, Knack doesn’t enhance the PlayStation 4 experience, it’s merely a footnote in what has gone on to be Sony’s return to form.
Aggregated Score: 4.1
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Categories: Game Review