A fantasy story only works when all of its moving parts fit together. Storytellers don’t need to explain all the rules of their unreal world—they just have to make sure that the parts we can see adhere to an overall logic. Knack, Mark Cerny and Sony Japan Studio’s launch title for the PlayStation 4, doesn’t work because its fantasy doesn’t adhere to any internal logic.
Don’t let its home on fancy new technology fool you; Knack feels like a very old game—it has quite a bit in common with Mega Man, for instance. Both games are about titular automatons created by kindly old inventors; both games task you with running through gauntlets of traps and enemies that attack you in predictable patterns; and both offer a steep challenge. But the fantasy world of Mega Man is structured around a simple logic at its core: When robots go bad, the hero robot can defeat them by assimilating their abilities into himself. It’s a meager premise, but it has endured over a couple dozen games because the Mega Man creators treat it with respect—everything else has to fit. The resulting worlds are simple, compelling, and clear. Knack lacks that essential clarity.
For starters, it’s not entirely clear who you’re fighting or why. Goblins are attacking human cities and looking for Relics—little blocks recovered from a mysterious ancient civilization. The Relics power all modern technology, including the kindly old inventor’s signature creation/discovery, Knack. Once the Goblins start showing up with tanks and guns instead of axes, the inventor positions Knack as a defensive force and a more versatile alternative to the soldier robots made by an ambitious technologist named Viktor.
That’s not a bad setup—except for the fact that Relics, the precious resource sought by the nasty goblin invaders, aren’t especially scarce. In fact, they’re all over the place, littering all of the game’s narrow paths through dull caves, jungles, barren castle factories, and empty city streets. Why is anyone fighting over this seemingly ubiquitous resource? Why the heck does Viktor want the giant relics hidden away in sealed ruins when stacking all the tiny relics together gives you seemingly infinite power?
It’s that latter scientific breakthrough that brings Knack to life. The little beady-eyed guy can suck up Relics, turning him into a mammoth pile of gold and wavy red spikes. He goes from lapdog-size to building-size and back again repeatedly over the course of the game. The Relics are his life and the fiber of his being, but weirdly, Knack’s strength isn’t always proportional to his stature. Little Knack can knock out a big sword-wielding security robot just as well as a tank can. Conversely, if you don’t quickly dodge and jump away from attacks, even big Knack is fragile. When he’s a giant, he might survive a bit longer in the quick and deadly brawls that make up the bulk of the game, but not much longer.
The advantages of a powered-up Knack seem to pass right by his oblivious allies too. At various times, Knack will go from being a giant to his diminutive self for no discernible reason. Halfway through the game, as you’re trying to rescue the Doctor and his assistant Lucas from Viktor’s fortress, Knack discovers he can bulk himself up with wood as well as Relics. Some of the game’s most engaging moments pop up in this sequence. Viktor’s robots attack Knack with fire, burning away the wood and forcing you to restore your bulk by stealing from conveniently placed fireplaces. But near the end of the scene, right after Knack finds a huge pile of wood and grows to his most fearsome, the game forces you to shed the layers without explanation.
Tug on any thread and Knack starts to unravel completely. If Knack can use wood to increase his size, why doesn’t he just knock down trees in the early levels and turn into an unstoppable punch monster? Why doesn’t everyone have the clearly evil Viktor arrested by the authorities after he flat out kidnaps Lucas? And why did Knack agree to do any of this humanity defending stuff when the lackadaisical little freak doesn’t seem interested in anything but making half-hearted snarky comments at the people he fights?
Knack is fun sometimes. There’s a comforting simplicity to it, stemming largely from a workmanlike execution of hoary video game ideas—running through levels, getting in scuffles, and jumping over pits and crumbling bridges. But even basic usability becomes a problem. The chapters are so long, they become tedious, even on the surprisingly vicious “Normal” difficulty setting. The challenge of the game could be a draw, but when coupled with the nonsensical morass of Knack’s fantasy, there’s no good reason to keep pushing forward. Without a clear center, Cerny’s game feels as hollow and vulnerable as its hero, a pile of disparate parts all too ready to crumble at a moment’s notice.
Developer: Sony Japan Studio
Platform: PlayStation 4