Yahtzee reviews Knack 2 and SteamWorld Dig 2.
You remember Knack 1; it was a launch title for the newborn PS4, for it is just as true in the games industry that newborns come into the world covered in blood and shit and scraps of tortured uterus. At the time, I summed up my opinion with the phrase "Knack is cack", but honestly, it was what you'd expect of a launch title. The launch title's job is basically to use the graphics hardware to erect a big, glittering neon sign saying "Your Game Here", just something that looks halfway decent and has some basically-functional gameplay that isn't going to blow any minds; something that will look glittery for the dumb-dumb masses who have grown bored of staring at their jangling keys, but also doesn't scare them off and provides a nice, low bar for developers to top as they get to grips with the hardware. It's like how you want the opening act to be someone competent enough to warm up the crowd, but not so good that they overshadow the main event.
With that in mind, bringing out the sequel to a launch title four years down the line that isn't much different than the first is like bringing the opening act on again to play the fucking encore while the main band hides backstage, crying and gorging on Wagon Wheels. Yes, Knack was cack, but Knack 2 is cack poo.
The premise of the franchise, for we now must call it a franchise however much the word sticks in my throat like a bit of toilet brush, is that you play a sentient creature made of the kind of small, geometric wooden puzzles commonly bought as stocking-fillers, who can grow indefinitely by adding more puzzles to his mass. Knack, for it is his name, is also an unstoppable fighter and problem-solver with a very good speaking voice whose existence is shrouded in mystery, and yet despite being the player character, he doesn't seem to be the protagonist of the story. That honor goes to a drippy little teenage twat who hangs around with Knack to form a highly effective world-saving partnership: Knack provides the muscle, the intellect, the lucrative royalties from his side-gig recording audiobooks, and the kid provides, um, a nice, flat head for Knack to rest his beer on. And yet the game persistently focuses the story on the little bastard and his problems as he whines about no one taking him seriously; maybe that's something to do with the way he sits on his arse the whole time, letting his bucket of Rubik's Cubes do the work!
Essentially, Knack, and by extension, us as the player character, are treated like the family dog, who's let off the leash at the start of each level to run ahead scaring off goblins and German holiday-makers so that the human characters can hang back and scoff all the pork pies, and I can't remember the last time I was so utterly "sewing needle under the fingernail to keep me awake" bored while playing a game. The Division, maybe, but at least The Division gave me a gun so I could compose satirical haiku on the walls in bullet holes.
Knack 2, much like Knack 1, takes place in a very, very long, very winding corridor with only one route forward; occasionally, there's a cutscene where Knack stands around like a spare banana at a dildo factory while the human characters establish the reason why we're going down the next section of linear corridor. Sometimes Knack will fight some guys, sometimes there's a block-pushing puzzle; it's basically like being a supermarket trolley attendant in Revolutionary France.
But a nice tease of the gameplay hardly matters since Knack's non-presence as a character in the plot creates this profound gameplay-and-story disconnect that means I'm giving so little shit about what happened that were I to review Knack 2, I'd probably very abruptly give up halfway and start talking about a completely different game. SteamWorld Dig 2 is the slightly awkwardly-titled sequel to SteamWorld Dig, the game about digging in a world; also, steam. It's 2D, it's a platformer, it's Metroidvania, and already, I can sense your eyes start to roll faster and faster until you can hook them up to turbines and generate cheap energy for struggling nations. Fucking every 2D platformer is a Metroidvania these days; no reason not to be when systems don't need to load up levels one at a time anymore like a dexterous waiter in a narrow corridor. But stick around; this one may have a hook going for it!
We play a robot who comes to a town of robots in the desert to find the protagonist of the previous game, who disappeared down a hole and then presumably filled it back in behind him and replanted all the fossilized enemies. So our job now is to dig down until we find him, selling whatever ore we find to buy upgrades on the way. See, how you make a Metroidvania stand out these days is to add a unique spin on the usual template. Properly unique, mind, not just renaming the inevitable double-jump to the Beluvian Self-Ejaculation Technique or something else that doesn't sound like a Vulcan wanking manual.
SteamWorld Dig adds tunneling gameplay reminiscent of Dig Dug or Boulder Dash, so instead of a predetermined sequence of platform challenges, there's a big fuck-off mass of dirt between you and the next place you need to be, in a sort of stark metaphor for the immigration process, so you have to dig your own way through in a way that lets you grab all the ore without crushing yourself or accidentally creating a six-story death drop. I like it! It's sort of like Spelunky, but without the roguelike aspect, which is another thing that's gotten a wee bit overexposed in indie platformer circles; yes, some wonderful things can be done with procedural generation these days, but let's not forget that you can't beat a properly-crafted experience. A carefully-rehearsed, well-timed comedy routine will always beat someone reading aloud a list of their favorite swear words, unless you're on BBC Three.
SteamWorld Dig 1 reminded me of one of those Flash games where you're trying to launch a guinea pig into space or whatever, and each failed attempt earns you a little bit more money to add another carrot-shaped rocket booster to his little furry bum. SteamWorld Dig 2 has a much stronger plot and better characters. The protagonist has a tag-along he can have conversations with; it's not just us alone in the dark, knocking holes in rocks, sheer loneliness causing us to slowly come around to the idea of sticking our knob in one. Also, the world unfolds more engagingly with better player training, movement generally handles more smoothly, and the chipping at walls is slightly less tedious.
So on the whole, Dig 2 feels more like a refinement of Dig 1 than a sequel, which does mean the constant calling back to the plot of Dig 1 feels a bit misguided. No need to shackle yourself to continuity; pretend it's the first time every time! If it's good enough for The Legend of Zelda, it's good enough for you. Also, I can think of a couple of other refinements that could have been made: the lantern that keeps running out of oil feels unnecessary; I mean, our health gets restored on the surface, and our bag can carry about as much as a hand-basket at Safeway, so we've already got two systems making us go back to the surface at regular intervals. A third one, with a literal timer, feels a bit gratuitous. Could've done with more boss fights, too; actually, it's generally kind of short, but just think of it as a nice, inoffensive, between-meals snack. Summer's nearly over and the big releases will soon kick in, but for now, let's sit down, put our feet up, and stick a great big handful of dirt in our mouth.
- Digging up: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Knack 3 will be Cack Wee and Knack 4 will be Cack Snore and that's basically the precise amount of mileage I have left in this bit
- Anyone remember "Diggers" on the Amiga? Didn't think so