Knack PS4 Review: Sure, It's a Kids' Game... if You Hate Kids

Sony's PlayStation 4 adventure aims to be simple and accessible, but it overshoots the mark to land at simplistic and uninteresting.

Preview by Jeremy Parish, .

At some point, I realized that Knack is a game about cussing.

I mean, it's not literally about cussing. You won't hear a single coarse word throughout the entirety of the adventure, whose story has been conspicuously crafted in the Pixar mold. Maybe not Pixar; that's probably a little generous. It's a notch below that, quality-wise -- more like a Dreamworks cartoon. Heck, an entire faction of enemies basically looks like Shrek.

Instead, it's a game where you will curse at the screen for hours on end. It's a badly designed little mess of a game that marries a reasonably charming story to some of the most brain-dead, ill-considered action I've ever had the misfortune to slog through. And it just keeps going, and going, and going. There are just about enough ideas in Knack to sustain about two hours of play -- perfect for a bite-sized, low-cost, indie game, right? But Knack is a big-budget, full-priced, retail title that needs to recoup the enormous amount of work that clearly went into designing its pretty graphics and tech, so those two hours of entertainment stretch across 12 or 15 hours of tedium.

Mechanically, Knack defines simplicity. The eponymous protagonist can... well, he can punch, basically. There's a little bit of platforming, but it's clumsy (and, thankfully, minimal). Occasionally you'll come across a puzzle, if you can call standing in front of a switch and pressing a button a puzzle. Knack has "secrets" to discover, though you have only a single linear path through the adventure, so finding those secrets amounts to punching conspicuous walls along the only route through the world. Knack makes Final Fantasy XIII and Call of Duty look like sandbox games by comparison.

In the words of another famous Sony hero, "Kick, punch, it's all in the mind!" Just kidding, you can only punch in this game. Kicking was beyond the project's scope.

Knack's gameplay amounts to walking into a room full of enemies and punching them until they die, which causes a door to open. Then you walk along a pathway (which may or may not have enemies to punch or a desultory platform or two to hop onto) to the next room, which locks down until you kill all the enemies there. Frequently cutscenes will interrupt the process. Eventually, you'll have punched everything that needed to be punched, and you will no longer have to play the game.

Knack doesn't even make interesting use of the PlayStation 4 hardware. Sure, it looks nice, but not stunningly so. There are no clever uses of the Dual Shock 4 controller's special features; in fact, the control scheme is generally sort of lousy. You're expected to use the right analog stick to evade, but all the attacks are on the face buttons and can't be remapped to the shoulders -- a dated, clumsy oversight. And even the much talked-about sharing features, which let you pick randomized treasures based on what your friends have discovered, seem effectively pointless; no one on my friends list has been playing Knack, so I had no one to share with.

All of this might not be so indefensible if there were more to Knack's combat -- which, remember, is basically the entirety of the game -- than punching things. There's a quick evasion maneuver mapped to the right stick, but it's tough to use correctly. Knack has a second of recovery after evading an attack, and there's no mercy invincibility in this game. If you misjudge an evasion, you'll take the hit you were trying to dodge... and since enemies have a tendency to gang up on you, you'll probably take another hit while you're still recovering from the move. OK, fine, that means you can't just power your way through -- but enemy encounters have a tendency to pair up enemies that will attack unexpectedly after you've committed to a move, or even appear from nowhere for a cheap free hit. Memorization and repetition, not instinct and skill, will see you through to the end here.

Welcome to a bizarre alternate reality where other people you know are playing Knack.

Ultimately, I found the most effective tactic in Knack was simply to do a double-jump into a diving attack. Coincidentally, this was exactly the best tactic I found for getting through Double Dragon on NES 20-odd years ago. Double Dragon was deeper, though. You learned new moves through the course of your adventure, something that never really happens in Knack. Also, Double Dragon didn't drag things out; completing it took about 20 minutes. So, Knack pulls less substance than that of a 25-year-old arcade brawler across an experience that takes about 30 times longer to complete. If the designers were trying to see how thin they could stretch the absolute minimum amount of content without breaking, this experiment needs to go down in the books as a failure, because Knack broke.

Knack's structure probably sounds fairly familiar to Sony's fans: It's basically God of War. Or rather, it's God of War done badly. There's vastly less creativity to the combat, not to mention less nuance. God of War was about empowerment and improvisation, but Knack lacks the subtlety to make that work. It's just trial-and-error and memorization, with a bizarre checkpoint system that discourages experimentation: When you return to a checkpoint, the energy you've stored for super-moves doesn't revert as well. If you burn through your special attack meter trying to defeat a tough encounter and fail, you're then forced to fight through it again without those special attacks. The clever enemy tactics and devious puzzles of the best God of Wars games, however, is nowhere to be found.

"But it's a kids' game," some may protest, revealing themselves as deeply sociopathic child-haters in the process. I'd certainly like for Knack to be God of War for kids; its colorful world is vastly more appealing than God of War's grimdark aesthetic, which I've always felt was designed entirely to appeal to that sullen kid who sits at the back of homeroom class drawing heavy metal band logos on his desk. But kids' games don't have to be braindead and joyless; things like Skylanders and even Mario have proven time and again that children respond to inventive, inviting games, not mindless design.

This is the most devious of Knack's puzzles, in which you have to turn transparent every time you come across a laser tripwire. Don't strain yourself, there.

And anyway, Knack isn't really much of a kid's game. Again, literally all you do in this game is punch things (or double-jump dive-kick them). There is no interactivity in Knack that does not revolve around violence. It may be antiseptic -- human enemies teleport away immediately after being bloodlessly pummeled by a two-ton golem made of sharp, dense material, presumably to the infirmary -- but it's still incredibly violent and shallow. And despite its lack of depth, it's bizarrely technical for a supposed kids' game, as if its creators were trying to create a Platinum game without a proper understanding of what makes Platinum's action the industry standard. After a while, games like Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising click and become fast, fluid, and joyful tests of reflex and instinct, but Knack is too ham-fisted to pull that off.

Actually, come to think of it, Platinum made a much better kid's game this fall than Knack: The Wonderful 101. Sure, it's not as visually spectacular, but it's every bit as colorful as Knack -- and there's a whole lot more variety and creativity to its action, too. Not only that, but The Wonderful 101 works on multiple levels; you can play it in a straightforward manner and see the ending, but if you take the time to master its mechanics you can really get the most out of the experience. Meanwhile, Knack is the first melee action game I've seen in years that doesn't grade you on performance and technique at the end of a chapter. And for good reason: There's no room for technique in this game. It's nothing more than a monotonous slog to the end.

About all Knack is good for is inspiring new and creative curses. I certainly spent more time improvising strings of epithets at its substandard gameplay than I did improvising strings of combo attacks. The only thing I actually enjoyed about Knack were the cutscenes. It's the best cartoon that's ever been presented with real-time graphics... broken up by some of the worst action gaming I've seen in years. Let me know when someone's uploaded an edit of Knack's cutscenes to YouTube, because I'd love to revisit the story without all the swearing in between.

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Comments 15

  • Avatar for Captain-Gonru #1 Captain-Gonru 4 years ago
    Okay, now I kinda want a piece featuring the best/worst creative curses. I know I've had a few over the years (thanks a bunch, Monster Hunter).
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #2 CK20XX 4 years ago
    "But it's a kid's game!" Well, did you know that children's books and programs are among the most difficult to write? Kids are naturally curious, interested in exploring the world, finding secrets, and challenging conventions. They are not interested in mundane tasks and repetition. They do not like being talked down to, will easily become bored if you dilute things for them, and may ignore you entirely if you try to baby them. Kids are actually much smarter than most people give them credit for.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #3 LBD_Nytetrayn 4 years ago
    "[Kids] are not interested in mundane tasks and repetition."

    Aren't kids among those who fill out their Pokedexes, complete with level 99 Magikarps?
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  • Avatar for DopeBoy3010 #4 DopeBoy3010 4 years ago
    Where is the review score?
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  • Avatar for DopeBoy3010 #5 DopeBoy3010 4 years ago
    Aha got it
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #6 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @LBD_Nytetrayn Most of the kids I know play Pokémon casually. The ones obsessed with catching everything tend to be adults. It's more a function of personality than age.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #7 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @CK20XX Darn straight, and that's exactly why kids gravitate toward Minecraft and Angry Birds -- games that don't hold their hand but let them experiment, then reward them for cleverness. The sooner publishers cotton to that fact, the sooner we'll stop having trite tripe like Knack crammed down our throats with the excuse that it's lousy because it was made for kids. Some people need to have more respect for the younger generation.
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  • Avatar for GustinHardy #8 GustinHardy 4 years ago
    I'll be honest; I picked up Knack and have ended up playing it more than the other launch games. Yeah, it isn't great by any means but it's one of those rainy Saturday kind of games. The checkpoint system isn't nearly as bad as many reviewers are pointing out and, like Jeremy says, the story is pretty enjoyable. It reminds me slightly of the original Jak and Daxter in that it is very much a "first entry" into a game series that I do hope gets improved upon if there is a sequel. Who knows, it could end up as an entry on a "Terrible Games That Spawned a Great Series" article. It's not a turning point in platformer/beat-em-ups but it also isn't the apocalypse in game form (that was Britney's Dance Beat).
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #9 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    Yeah. I actually liked the characters and story a lot, and wouldn't mind seeing this world revisited in the context of a better-designed game.
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  • Avatar for Thusian #10 Thusian 4 years ago
    @LBD_Nytetrayn @jeremy.parish point is if you do find a kid who decided to get a level 99 Majikarps it was their CHOICE to do so. Games like Knack frustrate me because you either choose to play it one precise way, or not at all no spectrum in between. If kids wanted to do something as prescribed they would do their homework not play games.Edited November 2013 by Thusian
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  • Avatar for Spazgadget #11 Spazgadget 4 years ago
    @GustinHardy - I'm in the same boat. While I absolutely understand@jeremy.parish's vitriolic reaction to the game, I've... actually... been enjoying it. It definitely smacks of that first, flawed game that could end up being a great, charming series. That might sound like damning it with faint praise, but about halfway through, I am still finding myself popping this one in a lot.

    Jeremy is right. The combat is pretty dumbed-down, not all that refined, and you do a LOT of it. It wasn't broken, in my opinion, just... pretty rote. The enemies changed up every so often so I still feel like it's keeping me on my toes, but he's right in noting that there is absolutely no growth or development in your move set. It's punch, punch, jump, punch. For the whole game.

    The game also is, well, rather difficult. Enemies are on you quickly, are relentless, and do a massive amount of damage (full disclosure: I'm playing on Hard). It seems an odd mix of punishing gameplay wrapped in what is obviously a kid-aimed franchise. I'm just not sure what Cerny was aiming this at - nostalgic old dudes like me who miss Crash and Jak and Daxter?

    That said, I can't in my right mind fully recommend Knack, but I also think it shows promise. The basic framework is there for a terrific franchise in my opinion - it's just that this edition is just... a little lacking.
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  • Avatar for estebanskycuevas88 #12 estebanskycuevas88 4 years ago
    Great review! I like (and kinda chuckle) at the means you go through to describe how mundane the combat is.

    I've been popping on this website every now and then and I'm liking what I see. I'm an old member of the 1up community so it's good to see Jeremy's work again!
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  • Avatar for alexb #13 alexb 4 years ago
    The extremely negative reviews from critics have been surprising me. The action is simple, but I've found it to be fairly rewarding. I'm playing it on hard (which honestly seems like the intended mode), so precision is critical. You either correctly prioritize the threats and dodge then counterattack properly or you get flattened in two or even one hit. Fights are basically puzzles more than brawls in this mode, with the Sunstone special moves acting as skip buttons for when you get frustrated with a particular encounter.
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  • Avatar for sijazz #14 sijazz 3 years ago
    While a I agree it is very repetitive, I did actually enjoy the game, mind you I didn't pay full price for it as I found it on eBay (still sealed and) cheap. The length was more value for money than me than the latest COD (I'm not over keen on multiplayer) so found this better than I expected. The negativity about it's limited move set made me smile when I think of the original PS Crash Bandicoot - that was the same but got great reviews and wasn't that the kind of game Mark Cerny and his team aiming at with Knack, I think so! A lot of potential if a sequel ever gets commissioned.Edited February 2014 by sijazz
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  • im waiting to see if sony can make a game like mario and pokemon on ps4 that be cool
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