When Knack II was announced at PSX 2016, I admit that I was probably one of the loudest groans in the auditorium. Knack had left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, coming across more as a tech demo for the newly-launched PS4 than an action game any of us wanted to play—and definitely didn’t feel worthy of a sequel. Yet here I am, ready to eat my words, because Knack II has made me a believer. It’s not without issues, but for the most part, it’s a fun romp for gamers of all ages.
Knack II takes place three years after the original game. It kicks off in medias res, with the capital city of New Haven being attacked by giant killer robots, and our plucky protagonist Knack needing to again save the day. Just before Knack takes on the biggest of all the robots, we flashback to six months prior to find out how we got to that point, facing off against foes old and new as we start an adventure that will take us across a variety of locales in Knack’s world.
It needs to be said that the self-contained plot here is an improvement over the first game’s story. It’s twists, turns, and bombastic moments—although somewhat predictable—elicited a Saturday morning cartoon vibe at times that I enjoyed. If there should ever be a third Knack game, this is a direction the series might want to lean into more, considering our colorful hero and his perceived target audience. Even with help from God of War writer Marianne Krawczyk, however, a lot of the characters in Knack’s universe still feel very one note, especially the titular hero.
In the first Knack, the goblin boss, Gundahar, called Knack a tool—and in many ways, that single line of dialogue was telling of many of the problems Knack still has now as a hero. Previously, Knack was always being bossed around by Dr. Vargas (his creator), and although the good doctor has thankfully taken more of a backseat this go around, his assistant, Lucas, has taken up the role of barking orders, telling our hero exactly what to do and when to do it. This depicts a feeling of subservience that isn’t fun to play. I understand that Knack isn’t exactly Kratos when it comes to backstory, but him having a bit more say in the adventure—and feeling like he’s on the same level as the characters around him (it is his game after all)—would go a long way to making our protagonist a more likeable hero that people would want to play as.
Of course, I also understand that Knack II is first and foremost an action-platformer and is primarily gameplay driven. In that regard, Knack II is light years ahead of its predecessor, and would stand on its own as an impressive action game even without the first Knack to compare it to. One of the biggest—and most important—changes comes in the form of Knack’s original gimmick: the ability to change his size.
In the first game, Knack would constantly be forced down into “small Knack” size, typically around the size of a child with a diminutive health bar to match. Almost every level started with Knack at this size, and it was often frustrating to go through all the work of building him up only to be broken down again at every story beat. In Knack II, Knack usually starts around “normal Knack” size, somewhere in the five to six foot range, and many new gameplay mechanics branch out from this single decision. As a side note, we can tell exactly how big he is with the new size counter next to Knack’s health bar, which initially seems like a minor addition but really adds a nice sense of scope to things.
This starting size allows Knack to control like most action game heroes. Knack now has elaborate punching and kicking combos that weren’t present in the first game; he can parry projectile attacks, or just block in general; he has new moves like block-breaking strong punches, stunning boomerang attacks, a gap-closing hookshot, and even a “secret technique” that looks a whole lot like a short-range hadouken. We’ll forgive Knack for borrowing some of these moves from other franchises, because it adds so much in terms of both how you attack enemies and the variety of said enemies the game can throw at you. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all.
There is still a use for “small Knack,” though, and with a tap of the R1 button, Knack can shrink almost instantaneously. There are many obstacles and hidden paths in Knack’s world that only a smaller-sized Knack can navigate. With another tap of R1, Knack can use the magical abilities that allow him to control relics (the particles that make up his body) to call those pieces back, so he can return to whatever size he was before. Even when Knack grows to his giant sizes—he maxes out at 32 feet tall—he can still instantly shrink to just under three feet when he needs to. This was a critical gameplay component the original Knack lacked, and it offers chances to explore an otherwise linear world while still showing off the game’s powerful particle effects.
Even with all this, there’s still a lot more gameplay variety to Knack II. There’s a new experience meter, which you can spend your accumulated experience on four different branches of a RPG-inspired skill tree where Knack can upgrade his speed, power, and other stats. There are tank-driving levels, plane-piloting segments, platforming puzzles, puzzles based on Knack’s weight, and quicktime events. All of those except for the last one were a ton of fun. The QTEs were used too heavily, especially when Knack would learn new moves and they would weirdly happen before tutorials. They were also too frequently used as level transitions, but understandably tried to give a more cinematic flair to some of the action that Knack wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
And if you’re looking for replayability, Knack II has it in spades. Sure, there are 100 new secret chests to find, much like the first game, but there are also 143 different secondary challenges across the campaign—like beating a level in a certain amount of time or smashing all of a particular kind of crate to earn bonus points (those bonus points are great for trying to get the best online high score for each level). There is also a time trial mode with online leaderboards for speed runs, and an arena mode where you can fight wave after wave of enemies. Knack II even added drop-in, drop-out co-op where a second player can take control of a blue-tinted clone of Knack, and the difficulty scales appropriately when there are two players versus only one.
It may seem like I just rattled off a bunch of stuff there—and I sort of did—but the point is that in the four years between Knack and Knack II, Sony’s Japan Studio obviously took a lot of time to look at what people wanted from an action game, and what many of their contemporaries were doing, and tried to accommodate that. I believe they not only succeeded, but also far exceeded expectations, not only putting their own entertaining twist on familiar things, but actually turning Knack into a viable action franchise that could be fun for the whole family.
Knack II doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but it is a very solid, very sturdy wheel if you’re looking for an action fix—while with its predecessor, many of us were tempted to throw out the entire cart. Whereas the first Knack often had me asking myself “when will it ever end,” Knack II held my attention throughout, and I was happy to play it all the way through. The story and universe of Knack could still use some work (and some much-needed fleshing out), but the gameplay has come so far from its predecessor that I won’t be groaning the next time I hear that Knack is back.
|Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment • Developer: SIE Japan Studio • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 09.05.17|
Knack II fixes many of the problems of its predecessor, delivering a fun action-platformer worthy of giving this series a second chance. The story is still a bit bare-boned, but the gameplay alone will be enough to keep you going until you see the end credits.
|The Good||A large variety of gameplay and Knack’s expanded moveset allows you to tackle bad guys in a plethora of ways.|
|The Bad||Too many QTEs; all of the characters in terms of their personalities, especially Knack, still feel very one-dimensional.|
|The Ugly||I feel like there’s been some retconning between Knack games that none of us were made aware of.|
|Knack II is a PS4 exclusive. A retail copy was provided by Sony for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|