PlayStation 4 exclusive launch game "Knack" is solid on two fronts.
First, it looks terrific. Where fellow day-one title "Killzone: Shadow Fall" flaunts the photorealistic muscle of Sony's new machine, "Knack" shows what kind of styled animation is within its power. And it's not far off from a Pixar movie. By the time I got to the game world's volcanic innards, where the glowing magma oozed hypnotically through dips in perfectly sunlit gray rock, I was frothing at the mouth to see how the next "God of War" or "Uncharted" would look on this machine.
Secondly, "Knack" affirms the PlayStation 4's lineage right out of the womb. With its colorful world and bloodless action, this buoyant mascot romp feels much like past Sony classics "Crash Bandicoot" and "Jak and Daxter." Well, except for the classic part.
When it comes to fun, "Knack" is decidedly less solid. Instead, PS4 architect Mark Cerny and Sony Computer Entertainment Japan Studio have cooked up a bland brawler that left me — sorry — knackered.
The character Knack is a golem made of variously shaped artifacts that, through the DualShock 4 controller's speaker, sound a lot like LEGOs when they're bled onto the ground, or assimilated into his body from it. In the space of some levels he'll grow from the size of a garden gnome to that of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, and swatting aside once-formidable enemies is a fun side effect.
He yo-yos like this many times in a lifeless story of humans warring with goblins. The true villain is telegraphed from the opening credits, and Knack is a cliche-growling bore when he could've been a perfectly good silent enigma.
The game play itself is fairly decent, and its design decisions aren't so bad. But they are curious. The sense of progression that guides most action games forward is weirdly absent in "Knack's" 13 chapters. Knack acquires no skills, nor new attacks. He can punch through walls for treasures that expand his power move meter and — with at least two play-throughs and maybe some online trading — gems that allow him to take new forms. But nothing fundamentally alters his attack plan in 12 hours of play.
The other side of the game, the opposition, is just as disorderly. As challenge goes, the sets Knack faces in the 13th level could be swapped for the ones he faces in the first. And the bosses, though crafted with fearsome offense and narrow openings to exploit, often eschew that most basic rule of big game battles: the rule of three. Many perish after two rounds, which just feels off.
Sometimes that comes as a relief, though, because the most frustrating and persistent flaw in "Knack's" design is checkpoint placement. Strings of two or three humdrum encounters have to be repeated to return to an area of peril, and with Knack unable to endure more than a couple hits, that happens a lot. Sometimes, my controller was almost in pieces.