You don't often get to see console launch titles designed by the people behind the hardware itself. The only example that immediately comes to mind for me was the Nintendo 64, though even that system wasn't exactly designed by Shigeru Miyamoto; rather, the needs of Miyamoto's game Super Mario 64 helped determine both the shape of the controller and some of the hardware specs (particularly Nintendo's decision to stick with the dated cartridge format).
That's what makes Knack so unique. Knack, a very pretty (if not exactly cutting-edge) action game set for release at the PlayStation 4 launch, has the unusual distinction of being helmed by the same man responsible for the hardware: Mark Cerny.
That's also what made Knack so initially disappointing to me. Given its parentage, I expected Knack to demonstrate a few jaw-dropping features -- some standout design elements to convert potential PS4 customers into actual buyers. I think back to previous PlayStation generations and remember being stunned by Wipeout on PS1, feeling absolute disbelief at Metal Gear Solid 2's PS2 demos, and being fascinated by the first few Final Fantasy XIII trailers for PS3. Knack doesn't exactly instill that sort of awe in me. Maybe that's means I've become a jaded husk of a human after years of writing about video games; but more likely, I think, Knack simply isn't meant to be that kind of game.
Rather, I think Knack aspires to be the "accessible" game in PS4's launch lineup: The family-friendly one. It'll be the leverage that lets the gadgethead in the family justify being an early PS4 adopter because hey, look at this cute game the kids can enjoy (when I'm not playing Drive Club). On that front, it seems to do the trick admirably. Sure, Knack makes use of PS4 features to pull of a few tricks that would have been difficult or even impossible on PS3 -- it boasts tons of interesting particle effects, some social elements, that sort of thing -- but its primary hook of scaling up the hero as you advance through each level until he's a mighty goliath towering over the town really just puts a more detailed face on something Katamari Damacy's been doing since the PlayStation 2 era.
At its heart, Knack actually turns out to be a simplified, arcade-like take on God of War. Of course, tonally speaking the two games couldn't be more different; Knack revolves around an artificial life form who punches rubber-faced goblins and rattletrap battle tanks in service of a kindly mad professor rather than a demigod bloodily eviscerating the residents of Olympus and making angry love to topless nymphs. But the overall feel -- combo-driven attacks, quick evasions controlled on the right stick, puzzle-solving, growing ever more powerful and learning new super attacks -- is unmistakably the same.
Of course, in keeping with Knack's broader audience, its puzzles (at least those Sony has shown off so far) are considerably simpler than God of War's. They also involve much less dismemberment. Presumably they'll grow more complex, though with luck they won't ever become as infuriating as some of Sony Santa Monica's more arcane challenges. And, again, it feels more arcade-like; which is to say there's less of a sense of a continuous quest to its overall structure and more a series of self-contained missions. Knack appears to reset to his default power level (and size) after completing each stage, moving onto the next mission in his basic form and accumulating mass and power by collecting whatever unique form of debris happens to exist in that area: Electric utility components here, chunks of ice there, etc. By the end of each level, Knack has grown to brobdingnagian proportions, only to reset to dwarf size before the next stage begins.
The stages Sony has shown so far have been exceedingly linear, as is probably to be expected from a game that aspires to recast the (similarly linear) God of War experience into something for all ages. I can understand the straightforwardness of it, but it does feel a little disappointing in light of PlayStation history. I can't help but mentally compare Knack to Ape Escape, the game Sony created to showcase the PlayStation's DualShock controller: A wide-open platformer romp featuring plenty of nuance and interesting control concepts. The severe streamlining of the more recent game echoes a general trend in games to strip down action to its minimalist basics or else go full-on open-world; there's very little middle ground these days.
Certainly there could be more to Knack than meets the eye -- Sony's only shown off a handful of levels, after all -- but it certainly seems like the game Dad (or Mom) buys for the kids to justify his (or her) PlayStation 4 self-indulgence. Knack doesn't look to offer any revolutionary features, and I can't imagine Cerny made any significant hardware design choices to accommodate the game. But maybe Knack showcases the PS4 hardware team's intent regardless through its utter simplicity: This is a box meant to sit beneath the family television in the living room, not hidden away in some man-cave.
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