Knack Tech Analysis

We look at the visuals and problems inherent in this PS4 launch title.

Posted By | On 18th, Nov. 2013 Under Article, Feature


When it was first introduced at the February 2013 reveal of the PlayStation 4, Sony’s Knack didn’t give the impression of a blockbuster launch title. It came off as fairly cartoony and simple game despite the brief visual flourishes throughout. The PS4’s chief architect Mark Cerny was revealed to be working on the game, and if you know him from his work on Crash Bandicoot (before it moved away from Naughty Dog, and vanished into obscurity shortly after), the man knows a thing or two about platformers. Combined with his knowledge of the PlayStation 4, we came to know that Knack was meant to be less of a grown-up, physics-heavy platformer and more of a simple game with brawling mechanics.

knack

"Right from the outset, Knack’s environments stand out as fairly plain and linear, even boring at times due to the utter lack of detail apparent. Those character models are fairly sharp though, don’t get us wrong, and they’re being rendered in real-time."

Now, as the game has released for the PlayStation 4 and endured mixed reactions from critics, we now have a chance to view its visuals up close. Running at 1080p resolution and a frame rate that jumps above and a bit below 30 fps, Knack looks to mix physics with a good amount of destruction and real-time modelling on the level of a CG animated film. This is against the backdrop of a war between humans and goblins, with the protagonist Knack composed of ancient relics and able to increase or decrease in size by absorbing materials from his surroundings.

Right from the outset, Knack’s environments stand out as fairly plain and linear, even boring at times due to the utter lack of detail apparent. Those character models are fairly sharp though, don’t get us wrong, and they’re being rendered in real-time. Knack has 90 minutes of cinematic cut-scenes though and you’ll notice that the animation is better and frame-rate more stable overall, which leads us to believe that they’re not in real-time. Nonetheless, the potential is there for the hardware.

The key aspect of Knack’s visuals revolves around the protagonist and the physics-based characteristic of his framework. Knack can absorb different materials around him and change his size accordingly. These materials are represented as fragments of varying shapes and sizes, swirling about, attaching and re-attaching on the fly, flying towards his body at some points and falling flat to the ground when not required.

knack

"Knack’s fragmenting is heavily dependent on the PS4’s GPU compute, and for the most part, it works marvellously. You’ll take on different forms, including Metal, Ice and Wood, and there’s nothing like seeing Knack’s components in Metal Form fly off when a magnet is close by."

According to Cerny himself, “As far as the character goes, we were looking for an international audience. If you have a character like we used to make back in the day ­– Crash, Jak, Ratchet, Spyro, Sonic – those tend to look like American characters, or Japanese characters. They have a country of origin. That means that in some countries it’s going to feel like something foreign coming in. We wanted something that was a bit more international in feel.

“So we thought, ‘Hey let’s have a character that’s really a special effect. Let’s have a character that can pick up things from the environment and grow.’ “

Such a task took a year and a half to implement, starting from concept to the final character we see today. Knack’s fragmenting is heavily dependent on the PS4’s GPU compute, and for the most part, it works marvellously. You’ll take on different forms, including Metal, Ice and Wood, and there’s nothing like seeing Knack’s components in Metal Form fly off when a magnet is close by. Little touches like these are complex despite their relative simplicity; it’s just a shame that the simplicity extends to the overall design and direction of the game.

knack

"When it comes to 50 to 60 FPS, the variation in frame rate wouldn’t be as obvious, but the popular consensus is to just lock the frame rate to 30 FPS. Forget the jitter, why the development team didn’t do this to begin with is odd."

Perhaps the biggest problems faced by Knack, from its appearances over the past year to its release have been due to its frame rate. The variable 30 FPS frame rate isn’t stable, and the PS4 has a habit of refreshing the frame rate that results in an awkward jitter through the screen. It doesn’t help that the environmental destruction causes the frame rate to take a hit, thus facilitating said refreshes all the more. At least Knack can be taken as an example as to why most developers should lock their frame-rates when there is a wide FPS range.

However, take into account that many other games which don’t have locked frame rates such as Guerrilla Games’ Killzone: Shadow Fall don’t suffer from these jitters. There are also games with locked frame rates on the PS4 which suffer from the jitter, though not as much, including Need for Speed Rivals. When it comes to 50 to 60 FPS, the variation in frame rate wouldn’t be as obvious, but the popular consensus is to just lock the frame rate to 30 FPS. Forget the jitter, why the development team didn’t do this to begin with is odd.

Knack needs a pretty heavy install size of 37 GB. But since the PlayStation 4 supports game caching, players can start playing the game after the first ten seconds. This is a big departure from the PlayStation 3 which made you wait for several minutes and in some cases half an hour to play certain games.

knack

"As a first generation title, it seems to skip environmental details and a stable frame rate in favour of said physics and it doesn’t help that the physics in the game involve taking different forms and bashing on enemies."

Knack is a graphically decent game but you can’t help but notice the textures looks off at some places, mostly in the exterior environments. Another thing we noticed when the robots are smashed into pieces or when debris are scattered around, they seem to be visible only for a few seconds before the game absorbs them. 

Visually there might not be anything wrong with it, but the amount of memory these next gen consoles have, one really cannot expect to use a trick which we used to see in games half a decade ago. It is a bit disappointing to see such issues since the game was supervised by Mark Cerny, who is well aware of the ins and outs of the PlayStation 4.

Overall, Knack represents a ton of potential. The physics manipulation and rendering is great, but it’s not without its flaws. As a first generation title, it seems to skip environmental details and a stable frame rate in favour of said physics and it doesn’t help that the physics in the game involve taking different forms and bashing on enemies. What could this technology do with a puzzle-based approach similar to Portal? That’s something we can get behind. Regardless, it is what it is and Knack simply falls short in the most rudimentary of ways.

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