'Knock-Knock' review: a hide-and-seek descent into madness (iOS)

by Andy Chalk

March 12 2014

Knock-Knock is a bizarre game of existential hide-and-seek starring a wild-eyed, dangerously sleep-deprived character known only as "The Lodger." (Rating: 4 out of 5 stars)

The Lodger must protect his solitary home in the woods from horrific intruders by avoiding them until dawn. And if you think that sounds weird, wait until you play it.

In many ways, Knock-Knock is very simple. You are the Lodger, a young man of indeterminate age living alone in a very large house in the middle of a dark and foreboding forest. You've lived there your whole life, as did your father and your grandfather before him, but lately you've been having trouble sleeping, and you think that someone—or something—may be trying to get inside under cover of the nighttime darkness. In the cold, lonely hours before dawn, you arise and wander the house, checking to make sure that all is well and counting off the minutes until the sun rises.

But it's also quite a complex thing, in large part because that is literally all you know about the Lodger's predicament. He has to make it through the night, and eventually unravel the mystery of his troubles; you get to figure out how to make that happen. Knock-Knock is a game that hearkens back to a different era, when players were told how to play but not what to do, and figuring it all out without the benefit of a tutorial or walkthrough was half the fun.

Knock-Knock was originally designed for PC, and the developers have done a nice job translating its mouse-and-keyboard control setup to the iPad's touchscreen. Touch one side of the screen or the other to make the Lodger walk to the left or right, swipe up when entering a room to fix and then turn on the lights, or swipe down to turn them off; swipe up or down ladders to move between floors, and tap on the Lodger himself to hide behind the furniture. The left/right controls can be a little twitchy, as the game will occasionally fail to recognize a screen press or even send the Lodger off in the wrong direction if you happen to slide your finger a bit at an inopportune time, but overall it's easy to grasp and perfectly functional.

But knowing how to turn the lights on doesn't necessarily mean that you should. In fact, even though the App Store description of Knock-Knock says you'll need to "fix the lights and keep the cabin rooms repaired to ward off evil," I found that leaving the lights off wasn't always a bad idea. The thought actually came from the Lodger, who burbles and mumbles to himself with some frequency as he goes about his unnerving business. At one point, he said that what really mattered wasn't whether the intruders saw him, but whether he saw the intruders, and as it turned out, he had a point.

But that sort of information is of limited value, because the game, and the Lodger's house, and all the things in it, keep changing. Oddly familiar clocks will appear now and then to hasten the morning's arrival, and creepy portals to other places can carry you off to seemingly endless hallways punctuated by doors that may or may not lead you elsewhere. You'll even have to go outside from time to time and patrol the woods surrounding your house. The truth is that you'll probably never be entirely sure what any of it means anyway, or how to apply it in a useful sense; the clues are there and they're certainly worth paying attention to, but patience and a tolerance for frustration will serve you well, too.

It's an incredibly strange experience, but Knock-Knock manages to pull it off thanks to a twisted yet very effective visual style—the Lodger is a freaky-looking dude with an explosion of blood-red hair and scowling, sunken eyes, and his "guests" are straight out of a full-on psycho-horror story—and, perhaps even more importantly, a wonderful and chilling array of audio effects. The intruders sound both harmless and deeply malevolent as they prowl your home, and the childlike voice providing hints and subtle guidance is almost as bad. The effect is rounded out by banging doors, bursts of music, ambient sounds of the night and moments of deep, dead silence; this is definitely a game that's best played with headphones.

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I think Knock-Knock is brilliant, not just because it's so well-produced and easy to dig into but because it forced me to think about what was happening and refused to cut me any slack until I did. I don't want to say too much for fear of spoiling it, and yet its sheer weirdness left me unsure whether spoilers are even possible. It's a horror game, but occasional startles aside, it's creepy, not scary; the two-dimensional layout and cartoonish visuals keep it from being truly frightening. But it sucked me in, and the more I played, the more I learned and the better equipped I was to handle it. Figuring it out? That's a different matter altogether.

  • Knock-Knock
  • Developer: Ice-Pick Lodge
  • Platform: iOS
  • Price: $4.99
  • In-app purchases?: No

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