Sony Japan’s Knack isn’t the cutesy PS4 platformer you think it is

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We’re finding Knack tricky to get a grip on – which is fitting since his character model is made up hundreds of swirling parts. It’s the most immediately visually striking thing about a game that actually had us squinting to spot the next-gen sheen. It’s not that Knack doesn’t look gorgeous – it absolutely does, with crisp bright visuals and an art style that gives a lantern-jawed, Incredibles or maybe Jetsons-esque retro-charm to human characters. It’s that we’ve clearly reached the point now where these kinds heavily stylised visuals enjoy a less immediate benefit from a hardware upgrade.

We’re also finding it tricky to pin down Knack as a game. Our initial thought on seeing Mark Cerny’s reveal at the PS4 announcement was of a platformer – something the cute looks seemed to affirm. But Knack, it turns out, prefers smacking things to jumping over them, and his game reminds us of nothing more than God Of War.

It’s the right-stick dodge that’s to blame, affording a Knack a Kratos-esque dash that lets him avoid the clubs and arrows of the troll-like monsters that seem to have invaded – for reasons completely unclear in our demo – a seaside resort town. Knack can then counter with some basic combos, but if there’s any greater complexity to be found in the combat system, it wasn’t on display here. Enemies die in a few hits and while Knack does have a set of slowly charging special moves – one of which turns his body into a swirling vortex of metal shards – they’re fairly indiscriminate high-damage, area attacks. He’s got a jump, too, but it’s a weighty, laboured hop – forcing you to rely on the dodge when in combat.

Still, the game does enjoy an escalating scale – caused by Knack himself, who grows larger as he smashes his way through the red health packs dotted all over the environment. Smash these open and there’s a piñata-like burst of metal pieces, not unlike the Lego series’ studs, that are immediately added to Knack’s body: Knack starts our demo essentially humanoid in size, but ends it (after a fade-to-black transition, admittedly) rather more King Kong-like in stature, stomping through the city throwing cars at attacking airships and battling mechanised foes even larger than himself. In a nice touch, a later part of the demo had Knack travelling through a frozen cavern: when he smashes open stalagmites here the icy shards get added to his electrically held-together form – though this seemed to be a purely cosmetic upgrade.

It’s not all brawling, however, as a stealth section proves. Knack seems to be helping a pair of human companions (who stay tucked away during combat) break into a museum, and doing so requires him to shift in and out of stealth and combat modes. Stealthed Knack is a optically camouflaged little mite capable of fitting into air vents and able to pass through laser tripwires undetected, and shifting into this mode causes all the extra body bits Knack has collected to scatter like marbles on the floor.

The stealth itself is entirely rudimentary, however. In fact, in the section we’ve played we’re not even sure it qualifies as stealth. Knack needs to shift into his more discreet form to pass through those lasers, for instance, but the enemies waiting ahead aren’t arranged in such a way as he can sneakily pass by them. In fact, they immediately rush in to initiate combat. A press of triangle restores Knack’s combat form, which is necessary since the security guards here will kill stealth-Knack with a single swipe of their laser sword.

While the level design is resolutely linear, with a fixed overhead camera guiding you along the defined path, there’s still the occasional distraction. Smashing open walls reveals the odd hidden item or health kit – but also grants access to some intriguing social connectivity. When we open a chest tucked behind a cracked wall we’re awarded a stat-boosting item, but also taken a screen that shows the items our friends (well, technically they’re Mark Cerny’s friends, according to this demo build) received from the same chest. Loot is randomised, so there’s every possibility your friends will have received something worth coveting. If they have, you have the option of picking a duplicate version of their swag in place of your own prize, and since there’s bonuses awarded for picking up complete sets of items, there’s clear incentive here for having a bustling friends list. Though, strictly speaking, there’s also less incentive for being the first of your friends to play the game.

It’s an innovative idea, and another incidence of the kind of latent connectivity that seems to be appearing in an increasing number of singleplayer games, regardless of whether their host console is always-online or not. The item-swapping system has a dash of trading-cards about it, though thankfully without the tense negotiations that would occur on the playground, since everyone gets to keep what they find.

It’s the only truly original thing we’ve seen in Knack, which looks charming but plays like a rather conventional brawler, which is disappointing given its place at forefront of a new generation of software.  What we played was a chopped up demo, however, so it’s possible Knack’s quieter virtues were being downplayed in favour of his goblin-punching skills.