Sony doesn't have a colourful plumber as its family-friendly games mascot, so for a character to launch the new PlayStation 4 it built a golem made up of little stone relics. So, here we are with Knack, an oddly-shaped monster that represents the company's first new franchise in this eighth-generation of consoles – and the game is a solid initial effort, despite it being a little long and rather hard.
The game is a clever fusion of Crash Bandicoot-style platforming and cartoonish visuals and God of War-ish brawling. Players progress linearly through caves, castles and secret hideouts, fighting a host of varying enemies along the way. The camera doesn't move – this is a tunnel game that shoots players in one end and out the other. That, and its charming animation, made me think a little of Skylanders.
It's also gorgeously rendered, making it a fine showcase for what the PS4 is capable of graphically. Many elements are simply spectacular: Rock-faces pop with three-dimensional texture, crystal surfaces glitter and cloud formations look positively dreamy.
The story starts with a goblin army declaring war on humanity. But these aren't "ordinary" goblins – somehow they have guns and tanks. In organizing its defence, mankind's generals are taking suggestions. One industrialist proposes his robots as a solution, but his offer is trumped by a scientist who shows off a unique discovery – a magical creature made up of stones who can alter his size by absorbing more found relics.
With the hopes of the species pinned on his shape-shifting shoulders, the eponymous Knack sets out to repel the goblin invaders and find out how they came to be in possession of such advanced weapons in the first place.
Knack basically punches his way through the game, with things changing up depending on his size. He often starts out tiny, beating up on relatively simple enemies like beetles and scorpions. Relics are strewn throughout each level, though, which means he inevitably gets bigger. As he ramps up in size, so too do his opponents. Eventually, he's stomping through cities like Godzilla while fighting big bomb-tossing robots and menacing tanks.
The game keeps things amazingly varied for most of its length, with Knack often having to change size several times in each chapter. Just as he can add new relics to his girth, he sometimes also has to shed them in order to fit through a doorway or to activate a special gate.
Helping with the variation is an incredibly large array of enemies to beat on. Some use projectile weapons, others charge forward with swords or hammers while still others hide behind force fields. The combinations of different bad guy types means that no two battles are alike.
Knack is aided in his quest by sun stones, a kind of crystal that powers up his three magical attacks: distance projectiles, a devastating whirlwind and a powerful ground pound. He has to depend more on his magic abilities when he's small and relatively weak, but they also come in handy when he's significantly outnumbered – which is often. He also gets more help when he discovers that he can absorb ice crystals, wood shards and metal fragments to become a sort of Super Knack at times.
Despite all that, the game is hard – sometimes punishingly so – even on medium difficulty, since it only takes a few hits on Knack to force a checkpoint restart. Younger kids are better off starting on easy difficulty. Better yet, they may want to play co-operatively, where the second player controls a smaller Knack who can act as cannon fodder. His death doesn't force a restart, so his presence in the game can be invaluable. Knack also gathers pieces of various power-up devices hidden across the levels, such as a relic detector, which makes subsequent playthroughs easier.
While I was amazed by how much variety the game packs into such a relatively simple premise, it does go on way too long for what it is. Knack clocks in at more than a dozen hours, I ran out of steam about three-quarters of the way through – though children may stretch those hours across several days of short-interval play time.
It may have benefited from a shorter length and an easing up on the difficulty, but otherwise it's not a bad first entry in what is sure to be a kid-friendly franchise going forward on the PS4.