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.
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.
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.
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.
Colorful visuals can't save Knack from its absolutely tiresome gameplay. But don't despair, PlayStation 4 owners: After this and Killzone: Shadow Fall, things can only get better.