Fun, straightforward and accessible, the cartoony platform brawler Knack ($59.99; rated E-10+) is a solid launch title for the new PlayStation 4 console system. Its gentle and kid-friendly, but veteran gamers will find lots to like. And it nicely showcases the PS4s revved-up graphics and controller options.
Plus its just pretty lovable overall, with its retro pulp adventure story and unique lead character. That would be Knack, a kind of sentient magic golem built from the relics of a long-lost civilization.
Knack was created by the Professor, a kindly old sort who hopes to use Knack as a force for good against mankinds resurgent enemy the goblin army. The goblins, it seems, have recently made a technology leap of their own, graduating from battle axes to fighter jets. Thats going to be a problem.
As the game begins, Knack is just a little feller, toddler-sized. But as he progresses through any given level, he absorbs nearby relics as power-ups, growing in size and strength as a sort of magnetized clockwork beastie. Enemies that require four or five hits to defeat as Little Knack can be smashed with one punch by Big Knack. Those very relics are also central to the story itself, and the source of the goblin menace.
In other words, the nature of Knacks existential dilemma powers the mechanics of the gameplay. Its always a good sign when story and design lock in like this. With Knack, the designers have found a new twist on a very old brawler game template no mean feat and theyve wrapped it all in solid storytelling and character development.
Well, relative to the genre, mind you. This is still a beat-em-up game at its core and the majority of gameplay is combat, with a smattering of puzzle-solving and collecting. As the game progresses, both the story and the fighting elements expand, and everything is designed to keep your interest piqued.
For instance, in later levels, Knack is able to absorb other substances from the environment -- ice, wood, metal -- and grow to King Kong proportions. These new elements also open up new combat options. Wood Knack can light himself on fire and smite enemies with burning fists of doom. But the fire will eventually burn out, reducing Knack back to size. Ice Knack can hammer enemies with frozen fists, but sunlight will gradually melt him down.
As Knacks combat abilities evolve, so do the enemies, and the game provides a fresh assortment of bad guys with each level. Creativity and humor are given priority, and thats a good thing. The various goblins and robots are more goofy than scary as they hurl weird weapons at Knack -- boomerang bombs, oil globs, mini-tornadoes, this sort of thing.
The supporting characters are developed as well. Allies may not be what they seem, and Knack has a surprisingly engaging mystery story that plays out nicely.
None of which would matter if the game didnt work on the basic level of the cartoon brawler. But it does. The control scheme is simple and responsive, and the fast-paced fights require rhythm and timing. Individual enemies attack in particular patterns, so you need to think tactically.
The game also offers a co-op two player mode, but I found Knack much more enjoyable as a solo romp. The game is carefully paced so that the fighting and platforming is broken up by gorgeous cut scenes that show off the PS4s superior processing power.
One thing to watch for: The checkpoint system is rather unforgiving. Respawning during battle often requires replaying several minutes of tedious platforming sequences, and if you quit out of a chapter before completing it, you have to start that chapter all over. There must be a reason for this design choice, but I cant figure it out. As my stalwart 10-year-old play-testing partner phrased it: This is so epically stupid.
Knack isnt going to pop your eyeballs with stunning next-gen visuals, but its a very pretty game, with sophisticated art design and some clever variations on the old beat-em-up blueprint.
Also new this week: The flood of launch titles for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 continues, along with a handful of smaller X360/PS3 games and expansions, including Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures, Ben 10 Omniverse 2 and Zoo Tycoon.