Sequels are always tricky, especially sequels of much-loved platformers. When SIE Japan Studio dropped Knack in 2013, it helped light a fire under the console beat-'em-up platformer, and ushered in a renewed interest in the genre.
Knack 2 is a worthy successor to 2013’s Knack but like all sequels, it has had to wrestle with many challenges — how to be new, how to be different, but how to stay true to the feel of its source material. On some counts Knack 2 succeeds, on others it doesn’t.
Knack 2 starts a few years after the events of the original Knack. Lucas and Knack, along with the familiar cast of Lucas’ buccaneering uncle Ryder and the jolly Dr Vargas, have been hanging out in relative peace until an army of zombie robots invented by an ancient race of "high goblins" is awoken and starts pillaging the lands.
As stories go, the setup is a little silly. Zombie killer robots, invented by a new goblin race obviously created to ensure continuity with the original is a bit on the nose, but in kid-friendly platformers these kind of zany plot lines are not uncommon. While Knack 2’s story feels contrived, it’s also fun and believable.
Where Knack 2 has excelled is in the reimagining of the world that Knack lives in. Central to Knack 2’s design tweaks is Knack himself. Knack is an oddity. An ancient relic brought back to life by Dr Vargas, he can transform into different sizes at will. In the original, Knack’s relative size and power progressed as the game did. In Knack 2, SIE Japan Studio has given gamers much more freedom over his transformations, making the clever decision to have a mid-sized Knack the starting character, and then allowing gamers to quickly switch between Knack the button mashing bruiser and Knack the sneaky minion.
This freedom is a clever addition to the game design, as it instantly provides players with more flexibility in how they approach combat. It has also given SIE Japan Studio much more creative licence to develop a platforming world that is fun and interactive. Knack 2’s levels are rich; large, great to look at, and satisfying to complete. They are also rather hard, so while on the surface (and on easy mode) Knack 2 will be a great romp for tweens, more hardcore platformer fans will also experience moments of true challenge.
SIE Japan Studio has also thought long and hard about to how to take advantage of Knack’s shape-shifting abilities. There are secret and hidden areas that only mini Knack can access, and quick time events that only large Knack can master. This means that gamers can choose their own playstyle, whether it be the 100 percent completionist, or story-driven easy mode tourist.
But Knack’s combat and gameplay are also where some odd calls have been made. While the level design has been extended and improved from the original, SIE Japan Studios has also extended Knack’s combat abilities and skills. At first glance, this is excellent: Knack now has a much larger repertoire of combat abilities than we saw in the original.
However, the way these abilities have been paced and put together detracts from the fun, cartoony feel that I loved from the original. A good example is the skill tree. Unlike the original, where special moves were unlocked over time, now Knack can gain XP by finding ancient blue relics, which can unlock new moves and powerups (but only in the order Knack 2 wants you to unlock them in).
This mechanic gives players a clear incentive to complete every level, but it also adds a layer of tedious administration to a game that was previously applauded for its childish simplicity. Knack 2 is not Bayonetta, God of War, or Final Fantasy, and it shouldn’t try to be.
It is this tension that sits at the heart of Knack 2. As a successor to its source material, it does an admirable job of extending the franchise. Fans of the original will relish the chance to once more jump into Knack’s oddball world. However, in creating this second bite at the cherry, SIE Japan Studios seems to have forgotten that sometimes less is more. Hidden within Knack 2 is a subtle message that Knack is only truly awesome when he is bigger, faster, and heroic. For Knack as a character that’s admirable. For Knack as a game, that might not always be true.