When you launch a console you want a good variety of games to launch with it. You need something for the hardcore shooter audience. You need a racing game, an arcade game, and of course the sports games. With these all covered there's a big market you want to hook, and that's the family gaming market. Knack is Sony's intended answer to this, a new franchise for the PlayStation brand that's designed to be family friendly - but is it a "kid's game?"
In Knack you take control of the titular character, a little creature made up of ancient artifacts called relics. These artifacts have been dug up from around the world and are apparently powering much of human civilization. But like any good thing found in the ground, it comes with a price - namely a war with goblins. It's the war with these goblins that our story takes place.
Knack was created by a professor, who is one of the game's many colorful and fully voiced characters. You begin your quest with the professor by your side, eventually switching up with the professor's slightly annoying and boyish assistant to help. The voice acting and cut scenes are decent enough (they are certainly attractive looking and held my kid's attention) the problem I found was the story seemed to be missing key pieces. Graphically, Knack is impressive through and through with large vistas featuring high textures and character models that easily seem devoid of polygons.
At its core, Knack is a brawler style game. You start as a tiny little creature that can jump and punch (or jump AND punch) while collecting yellow crystals that fill a special meter. As tiny Knack you have a small health meter, which means you can only be hit one or two times before exploding into tiny little pieces. As you pick up and find more relics your Knack grows bigger. While growing bigger helps on some levels, you won't unlock explicit new moves (there are some new animations) by doing this, but instead you grow your health bar. The yellow crystals you pick up fill a meter allows three special attacks that quickly take care of enemies within certain ranges. All those meters and sizes aside, there are still attacks from enemies that can one shot you - the most annoying of these are high speed arrows that are at times launched from offscreen.
Growing Knack and finding the relics is a satisfying affair. As you pick up these pieces, the Dual Shock 4 controller makes a sound familiar to anyone who's played the LEGO games - that little clicky noise you hear when put the LEGO pieces together. As you grow and lumber around the levels as a giant, the camera changes to accommodate making you feel more and more powerful. It's unfortunate though these moments are somewhat short lived. If you aren't shrunk due to damage, the game makes sure there are plenty of times when you are forced to put your relics into devices to power elevators or shrink small enough to fit through a vent or path.
This is the game's biggest flaw. The constant need to get powerful through frustrating combat and a horrible checkpointing system, but once you finally make enough progress to become large and powerful, the game finds a way to make you shrink down again to the more frustrating Knack. Later in the game things Knack can bind with elemental crystals like ice buffering his health a little bit, but the core problems with the combat mechanics still remain frustrating.
I can't stress enough just how frustrating and unsatisfying the game's combat is. Whether it's getting cheapshots from a bird who was JUST out of reach of your punch, or not hitting the dodge button while trying to do a jump attack on a goblin, the game is brutally unforgiving with it's combat. It doesn't even feel like it's a hard game, it just feels like a cheap game.
A good family game should allow couch co-op and Knack is no exception. At any time a second player can join in as Robo Knack, an infinitely spawning side kick capable of attacking enemies and buffing Knack. Robo Knack falls prey to the same weakness as regular Knack, but there is no death penalty.
Playing as the second player and assisting the first player (because that's what Robo Knack is) has other frustrations. The game's camera is fairly limited, always focusing on player one, so as a second player will quickly find themselves out of view, a timed offscreen indicator letting you know when you'll be warped back into the main player's screen.
If you happen to own a PlayStation Vita you can join in using remote play. Oddly though, despite the other player having their own screen, they are still tied to the main camera. This was incredibly disappointing to see.
Knack just exudes disappointment all around, which is truly a shame because on the surface it's easy to be fooled by it's good graphics. The game looks and feels polished, it's graphically beautiful. There are no bugs or framerate issues. For the most part it feels like a cohesive game, not one that was simply cut together quickly to make the system's launch. But the core game mechanics in Knack are so deeply flawed that I don't even feel there's any redeeming value here. My daughter gave up after 10 minutes with the game, even with my help as a co-op partner. Knack might have wanted to be the good family game for the PlayStation 4's launch - but it needed to be a good game first.