The most important thing that Knack 2 has going for is that it isn't just a $60 tech demo anymore.
That was the problem facing the original Knack—the PlayStation 4 launch title that aimed for accessibility, but was mostly savaged by reviewers. Legendary designer Mark Cerny, who led both the development of the PS4 and Knack, alluded to the original's technical aspirations when he showed me Knack 2 last week.
"It is true that with the first Knack that I really viewed it as an opportunity as the lead system architect to understand how what we built could really be used on a day-to-day basis," he said. "But with Knack 2, we're just trying to make a highly enjoyable game."
The original Knack was built around the eponymous character's ability to shrink and grow amid a shower of particle physics. It was a neat technical trick, but it did little to hide Knack's limited arsenal of moves, which consisted of a punch, a kick, a dive, and not much else.
"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," Jeremy Parish wrote in our review at the time. "And for good reason: There's no room for technique in this game. It's nothing more than a monotonous slog to the end. "
Knack 2 sets out to methodically address these critiques. Frustrated by Knack's limited arsenal? He now has a charge punch, a Fist of the North Star-like multi-punch, and a grab move, plus plenty more moves that can be unlocked as the story progresses. He can also interact with his co-op partner by literally punching through him and sending parts flying at enemies like bullets. The last ability was incorporated after testing showed that siblings usually wind up attacking each other as much as the bad guys.
Another one of the original Knack's touted features was the way it utilized online sharing: treasure chests would generate random items, but you could also take what your friends had received. These being the early days of the PS4, though, few people had friends with a new console, let alone a copy of Knack, so the feature mostly went unused. Knack 2's rectifies this problem by introducing a list of pre-generated alternatives.
Combined with a much greater variety of levels, Knack 2 is immediately more enjoyable than its predecessor. That said, while it seeks to offer a deep experience this time around, it doesn't stray too far from its original intent. From its cartoony art design to Knack's show-off personality (his de facto catchphrase is "Check this out!"), Knack still feels a great deal like a Saturday morning cartoon.
Which isn't a bad thing, per se. The early LEGO platformers, which are actually fair reminiscent of Knack, proved that kids games could appeal to adults with a smart sense of humor and some legitimately fun levels. Knack 2 shares in some of that spirit with a Katamari-like rampage through a castle, more advanced platforming, and even a tank battle reminiscent of Battlezone. It's a far cry from the drab brawling that characterized the original.
Indeed, Knack 2's focus on variety may be its undoing if Cerny and company aren't careful. Knack 2 throws so much at the wall--from light stealth action to the aforementioned tank battle--that it's in danger of feeling messy and unfocused. But at least it isn't boring this time around.
"I was hoping [Knack] would be a game anybody could play"
Perhaps the thing that hurt the original game the most was the odd weight of expectation it was under. Knack was a first-party launch title developed in part by the man who had been involved with Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and Ratchet and Clank. It had a pedigree that earned it more notice than it might have otherwise received.
Now, with the pressure mostly off, Cerny and his team have a bit more latitude to experiment. "The team really felt like they had a lot more that they could do with the character. There are a lot of places that the game could go that it didn't the first time around."
Reflecting back on the original game, Cerny says, "It was certainly nice for it to be a launch title. The biggest goal there was accessibility; I was hoping to make a game that anybody could play even if they never picked up a DualShock controller before. But at the same time, I think it might have made it less interesting for people who were game fans. So Knack 2's goal was to take all that feedback and make a pretty different game. A lot of variety, combat, platforming, and puzzles. So a bigger focus on fun factor."
While I'm not sure anyone was really crying out for a Knack sequel, it's at least a useful opportunity to learn some lessons from the original and implement the lessons learned from a generation of game development (seriously, has it already been four years?) From what I can see, Cerny and his team are making the most of it.