There are times when you’re convinced the developers just stopped coming up with ideas about halfway through the creative process. You see a solid foundation, you appreciate decent mechanics, and you’re excited about the premise’s potential. But then, it’s like staring at a construction site with inert cranes, placed morosely before a partially completed structure that begs to be finished. Fancy analogy aside, let’s just say I wish they had finished Knack. It’s not a matter of incomplete individual elements; it’s an incomplete vision.
The game doesn’t particularly impress in terms of visual excellence. While the environmental design is an obvious highlight, and some of the special effects might indeed qualify as “special,” there’s a decided lack of spit polish. Don’t get me wrong; the theme and style is charming and appealing. However, despite the game’s length, the graphics almost imply a project that suffered from a lack of resources. Here’s the biggest problem— I see no reason why this couldn’t have been done on the PS3. We are supposed to be holding next-gen titles to a higher standard, yes? So, while Knack is cute – and the animations are nice and smooth – it fails the up-close next-gen test.
The sound is only a little better, as we’re treated to a variety of rewarding crunches and smacks throughout this admittedly repetitive adventure. The combat effects are what you’ll hear most; you’ll spend most of your time bashing foes and trying to stay alive. Those are good and the soundtrack isn’t bad, either. It’s just that, much like the graphics, there’s nothing about the audio that represents a clear step forward. The balancing isn’t perfect, the acting is merely average and in general, the level of achievement simply isn’t high enough for a new era of interactive entertainment. Which isn’t to say the array of technical aspects is disappointing; it’s just underwhelming.
The story is a twist on the clichéd oppression and tolerance theme. The goblins have been forced out of their homeland by the invading humans, and after many years of strife and toil, those goblins are ready for revenge. This leads to two potentially interesting narrative components: First, there’s the ever-popular “one people mindlessly attacking another people” plot (ala Europeans vs. Native Americans). Second, as the main character was created via scientific experimentation, he wonders if he’s considered the equal of his peers. Is he just a weapon and nothing more? And if so, should he be risking his neck on a daily basis?
That’s why initially, I was encouraged by the potential growth of a very effective storyline. Unfortunately, the writers did almost nothing to build upon those base elements and in fact, Knack contradicts his inner sentiment with every step. One minute, he’s questioning his origins and the goblin’s war against the humans and the next, he’s gleefully pounding opponents into oblivion. It’s a no-holds-barred free-for-all and quite clearly, Knack is having fun out there. And that’s basically where his character development begins and ends, although there is some small growth toward the end of the adventure. It’s just so disappointing from a storytelling perspective.
However, I could’ve lived with that had the gameplay been well fleshed-out, accessible, and wonderfully entertaining. While I would categorize the gameplay as “entertaining,” the unbelievably repetitive nature of the combat and the lack of depth really hinder one’s enjoyment. Again, when you first start playing, you’re wandering around, punching everything in sight and in general, having a good time. After all, most action/adventure games of this kind start off slowly; maybe you don’t have any of the equipment you’ll find later, or maybe you earn a bunch of cool new skills as time goes on. There are countless ways to enhance the depth and scope of this gameplay.
But for whatever reason, the developers don’t expand upon the basic principles. All the attacks you’ll ever use, you learn in the tutorial. Furthermore, because there’s certainly no intricate combo system installed, it’s not like you’re taking three or four basic attacks and constantly stringing them together in new and inventive ways. No, this is just punch, punch, punch some more, get those valuable sunstones to unleash the whirlwind, projectile blast or shockwave, rinse and repeat. On the flip side, they do try to spice things up with Knack’s ability to grow in size and stature. And truly, this feature is probably the most enjoyable part of the game.
As Knack absorbs relics, he gets bigger and bigger. Soon, those enemies that required a bit more attention are nothing more than pesky annoyances; you’ll swat them out of our path with a single strike. But wait, you almost never get a chance to enjoy your newfound size because as Knack grows, so do his enemies. Perhaps the logical question then is, “what’s the point?” Sure, the bigger foes make for a bigger spectacle and a more significant challenge, but that’s about it. For a game that’s built to be fun and accessible for all ages, I find it odd that the designers didn’t want to give us a chance to feel uber-powerful. Furthermore, because the gameplay doesn't change with your varying size, the metamorphosis feels even more superfluous.
Again, though, the creators tried to infuse a bit more depth by giving Knack elemental traits. This happens when he absorbs material like ice and wood, and it means he’s vulnerable to certain attacks. This does grant him a new skill or two here and there, but those are nothing to write home about and some don’t even work properly. Exactly what is the point of going invisible if your enemies can still see you? They nailed down the core mechanics, because those always work well, and they gave us an appreciated variety of environments. The potential is definitely there; they just don’t do anything with it. Throughout the 13 chapters, you’re quite literally doing the same thing over and over and over.
Sure, you can try to find secrets and break through a few walls. There are collectibles to find and playing with a friend is vastly more entertaining than playing alone. But here I come to another bizarre snafu: They’ve been saying all along that Knack is designed for all ages and skill levels. Okay, well, either I’m just really bad at these types of games, or this is surprisingly difficult. It starts out easy enough but the steep challenge kicks in all too soon, and I’m left wondering what novice gamer will be able to complete it. Perhaps they expect us to put the game on Easy; if that’s the case, fine. But lots of games are crazy simple on Easy mode.
Knack probably looked great on the drawing board. Had I been one of the developers in the room, I would’ve been excited to get started. But I wouldn’t have expected that somewhere along the way, we would’ve stopped implementing ideas to expand upon that admittedly rock solid foundation. The game is fun, and it’s even more fun when playing co-op. It has a boatload of charm. The fighting is fast-paced and occasionally rewarding. But where’s the rest of it? Where’s the robust skill set, the varied combat challenges, the compelling story and character development? We’ve come to expect this and we certainly expect it from a new era of gaming.
The Good: Great world design and lots of pretty animations. Good control and easily executed abilities. The growth mechanic is a good idea. Co-op play is a huge benefit.
The Bad: Unimpressive technical elements. Incredibly repetitive gameplay. Lack of depth and gameplay features. Several annoyingly unrealized concepts. Difficulty seems awfully oppressive for newcomers.
The Ugly: “Sadly, perhaps this epitomizes the term ‘bare-bones.’”
11/19/2013 Ben Dutka