Knock-Knock Review: Great scares wrapped in frustrating design choices
I have this weird love-hate relationship with Knock-Knock, the horror adventure game from Russian developer Ice-Pick Lodge. On the one hand, I loved the game whenever it would get ultra creepy and genuinely make me flinch. On the other, most unfortunate hand, I couldn't help but feel utter disdain toward it when it left me confused, but more importantly, when it frustrated me immensely. That's the type of game Knock-Knock is. One moment you'll revel in its pleasant eeriness and bold art style; the next you'll be left scratching your head and feeling annoyed by its flawed design philosophy.
You control a sleep-deprived, spiky-haired, pajama-wearing character known as the Lodger as he explores seemingly countless mansion rooms. All you really have to do is go from room to room, turning on light after light. There's nothing deep about the mechanics, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the minimalist nature of the gameplay is quite refreshing. Knock-Knock doesn't need to be complex because it's driven entirely by its atmosphere, imagery, and sound. At least, it should be.
As you go to different rooms and continuously turn on lights, a clock icon indicates that time is passing. In order to progress to the next stage, you must await dawn. It's a lot more unnecessarily tedious than you may think, because sometimes disfigured monsters and grotesque ghouls will appear in a dark room. Whenever one of these touches you, time will reverse a bit, and if enough time hasn't already passed, you're forced to start the level over.
Losing precious time or having to restart levels left me with this feeling of sheer dissatisfaction. That feeling countered the bliss I experienced while traveling across rooms uninterrupted. While the enemies add some degree of challenge and an appropriately unsettling visual, they get in the way of the fun and suspense that's meant to mesmerize you. Rather than immerse you in the experience further, enemy encounters take you out of the game and create a disappointing disconnect, reminding you that you're an outsider playing a game rather than a star participant of this horror adventure.
Knock-Knock relies heavily on its randomly generated design. This works most of the time, and as far as the actual level layouts are concerned, there's absolutely nothing wrong with it. It's the random appearances of enemies that really cause a problem. Yes, those damn enemies are once again the source of my disappointment. I imagine that if Ice-Pick Lodge had chosen where to place enemies, there would be less erratic situations that cause the clock to rewind ever so annoyingly and force you to restart often.
Special fast-forwarding clocks appear from time to time after you turn on the lights in any given room. These briefly increase the speed at which time passes, making dawn creep closer just a tiny bit faster. Sadly, due to the randomly generated style of the game, you're not guaranteed to encounter these clocks very often. It's a shame, because when you've explored every room in a level and desperately want to progress but keep losing time due to enemy attacks, you're bound to grow both bored and angry at the fact that those clocks just aren't appearing.
Thankfully, Knock-Knock looks quite pretty throughout despite the bipolar quality of the gameplay. Everything has this brooding hand-drawn look to it, like something you'd expect to see in a deceptively dark children's storybook. As previously mentioned, enemies in particular are somewhat haunting. There are also instances where you can exit into the forest-like backyard, which is rife with leafless trees, claw-like branches, and angry-faced trunks. This all creates a unique graphical component that's impossible to dislike.
The sound design is also effective in creating a spooky atmosphere. The creaking of floorboards and rusty doorknobs turning are heard the most, but sometimes, out of nowhere, a loud knocking will occur on one of the many doors. Even though you know that following that noise may result in a painfully lame enemy encounter, the actual sound of the knocking itself is enough to make you gasp. Even creepier, though, are the voices. Whether it's the sound of an eerie young girl or demonic older man, hearing these entities speak to you is highly unnerving.
There are a lot of things that Knock-Knock does exceptionally well. The intuitive gameplay lets you jump right into the experience. The graphics are great. And the sound is just so unsettling that it sucks you into the game. The negatives, however, are so apparent and so distracting, that you're immediately sucked right out of it. This mixture of surprisingly good and stupidly bad is what contributed to my love-hate relationship with Knock-Knock, and it's the main reason I couldn't let myself get completely lost in the wonderfully minimalist adventure — an adventure that's in a constant merciless struggle with some heinously poor design choices.
This is one of the weirdest reviews I've ever had to write, because despite the low score, I actually found myself loving this game at times. I loved it for everything it did right, and for giving my inner horror fan a truly haunting experience. However, just as I was ready to openly profess my love for this game, it showed me an ugly side — a side riddled with poor pacing and marred by unforgivable monotony. I won't tell you to avoid Knock-Knock altogether, because there are certainly some interesting parts, but I will recommend that you keep your expectations at a reasonable level.
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