The emotional arc of playing through Knuckle Sandwich feels like grading on a bell curve.
In the beginning, there was frustration. “Why does this opening feel so disjointed?” Once it finds its groove, it begins to sing through the middle. Great characters. An intriguing mystery. Cliffhangers that leave you wanting more. Towards the end, the urge to throw the controller across the room was at an all-time high. “How is this boss battle even possible? Isn’t this already on the easiest setting options?”
Thankfully, while there are some rough edges, the parts of Knuckle Sandwich that shine through are exceptional, keeping you hooked on wanting to see this tale through to the very end.
The first two chapters of Knuckle Sandwich throw you through a bit of a loop. You’re introduced to this world, its inhabitants, its world-shattering mystery and a mish-mash of mechanics very quickly, in a way that feels like an excited little kid foaming at the mouth to explain to you every tiny detail of Minecraft. It’s disorienting at first, leaving you feeling like the floor beneath the feet of your knowledge keeps shifting like quicksand.
There is a lot to get you across, though. This is an Undertale-style RPG, with battles containing minigames that determine your success or failure. Many characters in this world are utterly bizarre. A million different questions are all set up at once, barely giving you time to digest this knife fight in a back alley before glitching the entire world out after telling you that summoning magical goblins will help but, oh no, my boss who doesn’t pay me wants me to cook human flesh burgers for our endless stream of freakish baby monsters that speak some alien language you can’t understand, and what the hell is going on???
Once your character is joined by a ragtag posse trying to also navigate this strange world, everything settles into a more confident rhythm. Chapters start fitting more of a formula, where you’ll play through a specific plot beat with one of your friends accompanying you, pushing further down the rabbit hole. You work your way through some clever setpiece dungeons, unravel a bit more of the world, then pick up the next thread and continue on.
The combat system is just as wild a swing. The big calling card is “over 100 fast-paced minigames specific to each enemy and playable character.” It’s smart to lean on this as a feature, because much like its Undertale-shaped inspiration, these are excellent. From catching eggs to dodging bee bombs to shooting zombies, these quick Warioware-esque minigames are very entertaining.
At least they are until you need to do them again, and again, and again. Not just throughout the game as a whole, but within the same fight. Something feels a little off about the backend math during the RPG part of Knuckle Sandwich. On one enemy, your attacks will do 2 damage to a slime, and on the very next battle will do 300 to a spooked ghost. However, both take 4-6 turns to defeat, making your attacks feel disconnected from your character gains as you level up – and don’t even get me started on the damn rats.
Add to that the fact that every offensive and defensive action is another one of these minigames, and it stretches out the many, many battles you’ll face. You can get access to multiple skills as you traverse this wild world, which theoretically should have mitigated this inconsistency, but none of them seemed to do any more damage than just a regular attack would.
Thankfully, Knuckle Sandwich has a seriously robust set of accessibility options to help tailor your experience. If you absolutely love the heavy grind and want to perfect these mini-games, you can. But you can also toggle the option to skip battles entirely, or with the regular attack minigames turned off while you reduce the damage you take anywhere between 0 and 100%.
It must be said, however, that a lot of the visual elements throughout the entire game are genuinely incredible. The most immediate phrase that might come to mind is something along the lines of “it’s like an acid trip,” but that undermines what is a very clear vision and artistic flair to Knuckle Sandwich that is a delight to experience. The aforementioned world glitching is only one aspect of the game playing with the idea of video game graphics, but there’s a lot more where that came from.
Going into too much detail would puncture the surprise and joy somewhat, but there are some character models in certain sections of the game I totally dug, paired with wonderfully eerie electronic soundscapes. There are also so many great visual gags, from what happens when you find a stray goblin to simply the rotation animations of your little dude. There are opportunities to chat to characters all the way through, but if you see a dude sitting around playing a game on his phone, he’s well worth going out of your way for.
Which leads to what is ultimately the strongest factor Knuckle Sandwich has going for it – it’s often full-belly laugh-out-loud funny. The writing is very sharp just about all the way through – over-excited opening notwithstanding – with plenty of witty remarks and some wonderful punchlines. Despite its dark narrative throughline, it constantly reminds you, “Hey, remember, this is a game. Let’s have some fun, yeah?”
When it does get serious, it’s also quite engaging and evocative of a much larger world outside this little fictional island. You want to know what the deal is with the bus driver, and the weird cult, and the freakish baby monsters, and every other question on the tip of your lips.
Despite an infuriating hour spent painstakingly trying to get through a bullet hell section on the second last boss fight, as well as a need to set damage reduction to 100% for the final boss, seeing Knuckle Sandwich through all the way to the end of the epilogue is worth it – even if there’s a lingering feeling that the scope for this game originally involved a much longer playtime.
Despite it all, one thing is for sure – Knuckle Sandwich is unique. While the lineage of Earthbound is littered with a smattering of wonderful top-down RPGs with big emotions and larger-than-life worlds, Knuckle Sandwich manages to carve its own special space.
Despite some initial misgivings and a few frustrations, there’s a lot to latch onto and love here. Though the battle system is in need of some heavy tuning, frustrations can mostly be mitigated with accessibility options, and the game that ultimately comes together is more than the sum of its parts. It might buckle under its own weight at times, but Knuckle Sandwich is an endearing and wild ride worth going on.
3 Stars: ★★★
Developer: Andy Brophy
Publisher: Andy Brophy, SUPERHOT Presents
Release Date: 23 November 2023
The PC version of Knuckle Sandwich was provided and played for the purposes of this review. GamesHub reviews are scored on a 5-point rating scale.