This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Knack.
So Father Christmas finally pulled his finger out and brought me a PS4 through his usual intermediaries at JB Hi Fi, so it's time to get caught up with the launch titles, starting with Knack, which would hopefully still be relevant 'cos all the kids who got it for Christmas probably haven't yet stopped crying angry betrayed tears. And just to briefly address those kids, "Ha ha ha! Nice job getting born just in time for the worst consoles, you little chumps! You're gonna need nostalgia goggles the size of dustbin lids." Yes, as we used to say in the Yorkshire ghetto, "Knack is cack!"
I can't think of a single console in the last decade and a half that wouldn't have benefitted profoundly from delaying its launch for about a year. It's been like watching the tragic results of a birdman rally being held too close to the javelin competition. People tell me most consoles aim for being loss leaders these days. Well, I don't know about that, but they certainly are dross leaders! Leaders in the field of dross! (beat) You know, I got paid money to write that!
Knack might as well have been called Particles: The Game. The titular main character is an upturned bucket on a body made up of large numbers of small objects and he gets bigger the more of them he collects. Sounds a wee bit Katamari Damacy so far, doesn't it? And I can't say I wouldn't be thrilled by the prospect of building a giant body out of cats and schoolchildren and using it to swat helicopters out of the air. Perhaps this was the original idea at some ancient mythic design stage, but if it was, then vision seems to have had to try to meet practicality halfway, and practicality was determined not to move from the seat next to the biscuits.
So Knack can only grow from collecting specific objects, his size is largely dictated inorganically by progress through the level, and even then the framerate hyperventilates when there are too many loose physics objects, which is tragic really. The onus of the next-gen launch title is partly to sell the graphical capability of the console, standing atop it like Salome doing a little volumetric lighting Dance of the Seven Veils. This is more like Dance of the Seven Smallpox Blankets!
And presumably haunted by the same angry specter of compromise, the level design is as bland as it gets. Corridor after corridor after empty room after empty room. You can design every single fucking level with one very long piece of string threaded through some ping-pong balls. I asked myself a short ways in, "Why do the words 'Crash Bandicoot' keep crossing my mind?" 'Cos that's what it plays like! This is as far as we've come, people, right back around to PS1 era gameplay: moving along a line and hitting things. Except Crash Bandicoot had colour and life and secrets and challenges and character and humour and squealing pigs you can ride on after looking at the camera with a slightly suspect look on your face. And what does Knack have? Twelve different varieties of rock texture. You spend more time in caves than a hibernating bear.
Yes, you grow bigger and hit harder as the level goes on, but the rooms grow larger at the same rates and enemies are swapped out for tougher ones, so the gameplay doesn't change. You're either smashing little rock walls to get to a secret room or smashing entire buildings to get to the very same, albeit scaled-up, secret room. So someone in this world is manufacturing treasure chests ranging in size from breadbin to double-decker bus.
The plot is visited in brief cutscenes between corridor traversals and is the kind of plot that very loudly and busily goes fucking nowhere. It's set in a peaceful human society where technology is powered by ancient relics dug up from archeological sites, in one of which Knack was discovered. So you might think something would be made of where Knack came from and what his purpose is. But no, no-one cares. He's deployed as a weapon against an invading army of goblins and when he starts fighting them in a human city smashing buildings and making residents visibly shit themselves, you might think the plot will now be about Knack questioning his allegiance to a species that hates and fears him and in which he can never truly belong. But no, everyone's just sort of cool with it. "Dah, those buildings were probably gonna fall down anyway, and the people inside were mostly dicks!" It's like Knack spends the whole game showing off and breaking things in the vain hope that the plot will actually be about him at last. One wonders why they even gave him a voice; one further wonders why the voice they went for sounds like Barry White trying to chat up a jar of Nutella.
Only the human characters actually do plot-relevant things, but all pretty half-heartedly. Knack's creator is a kindly scientist haunted by his lost love, although that gets really anticlimactically resolved basically around the time the game gets bored of him going on about it. There's a kid and some adventurer bloke who hang around contributing about as much as a suggestion box, and yet somehow both seem to have better claim to main character than fucking Knack does. And then there's a bloke with a goatee, shifty eyes and an army of robots who starts off ostensibly as an ally, but is so arse-wipingly obviously the villain that the game absentmindedly forgets to establish that he is. After they complete their mission together, he just goes, "Bored now!" and kidnaps someone for literally no reason and to nobody's surprise. Well, the reason he gives is that he wanted the heroes to come to his house and look at some stuff he's working on. Fucking ring them up! Or just ask them, they're right there! Offer them a lift on your getaway vehicle! It's like he only knows how to get things done in an evil way. All he wants is to work with the scientist to open an ancient ruin, something the scientist seems quite willing to do, but not after he's been helicoptered to a Dracula castle in a fucking cage! This guy needs an intervention!
It's especially weird how he keeps ordering Knack to be destroyed when Knack is obviously indestructible - in cutscenes, anyway. In an example of "poodonarrative pissonance" (Still getting paid, remember), in gameplay, Knack can take hits like a matchstick model of a polio victim. I asked myself, "I'm dying an awful lot. Is this game badly made or am I just this shit?" Perhaps a silly question. Every enemy can slice off your health bar like a fat bridesmaid left alone with the wedding cake, there's an awkward pause after the dodge move that leaves you wide open, and all the action's taking place in a tiny section of the screen surrounded by huge expanses of empty floor. So it is badly made and I'm not shit, hooray!
So yes, between uninspired and poorly-balanced gameplay against the background of a scrappy plot in which boring characters fight over protagonist rights, Knack is cack. It's a fat sack of cack smoking crack. You might think smoking crack would give it some thwack, but the crack is whack and turns the lungs black. And I'd think of a better way to end this attack, but cut me some slack, I'm too much of a hack. Oh snack! I mean, snap!
- A clever or adroit way of doing something: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I could teach a night course on how to insert swear words into other words
- Perhaps Knack should try a different tack