Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
Previously Released On: PC (2016)
Developer: Prologue Games
Publisher: Wales Interactive
Knee Deep was originally a little known episodic narrative adventure game that got its start on PC all the way back in the summer of 2015. The game was originally broken up into three acts that were released about four months apart, concluding in March 2016, but is now being ported over to the PS4 and Xbox One. The console port consists of all three Acts, so there won’t be any waiting around to keep the story moving.
Knee Deep tells the story of a small backwater swamp town in Northern Florida called Cypress Knee where a Hollywood star has hung himself at the town’s main attraction, a Native American-themed motel called Chief Roadside. The player takes on the role of three different protagonists, a cheeky millennial blogger, a washed-up newspaper reporter and a failing private eye who are all investigating the apparent suicide from various angles. Naturally, not all is as it seems, and it’s not long before all three characters find themselves caught up in a deadly conspiracy.
Knee Deep’s calling card, of course, is its multi-layered story that excels at providing multiple relatable dimensions in which to progress its story, as you will come to find that many different interested parties have a lot at stake in the investigation.
That said, let’s wade into to the waters to see what makes Knee Deep tick.
Knee Deep’s story is far and away its best asset, though how it defines its characters is a bit artificial.
Romana Teague (the blogger), Jack Bellet (the reporter), and K.C. Gaddis (the private eye) are all meant to provide different perspectives on the same story, and for the most part, they do their job. I will say that the game cops out a bit in trying to establish their character by always offering a dialogue option with a particular adjective designed to make you say “Oh this character is quirky” or “Oh this character is sarcastic.”
Unfortunately, if you don’t pick any of these options (though I don’t know why you wouldn’t), there’s nothing in the dialogue that naturally separates each of the characters’ personalities. It’s almost like the writers had trouble working in specific moments to let their personalities shine through, so the solution was something to the effect of “here’s this character trait, now believe it.”
Fortunately, the events of the world and the mystery surrounding the death of the Hollywood actor are enough to distract you from this. It also helps that the game works in some small journalist mechanics where at the end of each segment, your character writes up a blog post/article/report based on what has happened with options to choose how you want it to be written. You can make Romana’s blog posts “Edgy” to help boost her click count, or make Jack write an “Inflammatory” article to help him keep his job, while K.C. might write up a “Cautious” report to keep his expenses down.
Ultimately, these choices end up being relatively superficial in the grand scheme of things, but they do unlock different dialogue responses from characters in the world, so it’s cool to see how the differences play out.
What Knee Deep lacks in technical prowess, it makes up for with style.
Knee Deep isn’t exactly a looker, especially when you first boot it up, but it does manage to do something pretty unique compared to most narrative adventure games. Instead of playing out in a fully fleshed out and realized world, the game takes on the style of a theatrical play with rotating sets, audience reactions, and even a few cliche rhymed dialog moments.
Because of this, its subpar visuals quickly take a back seat as you are thrust forward and backward from one setting to another, as doorways and walls rise on cables, revealing to the audience what lies behind. It’s truly some creative stuff, and I wish more games would attempt to incorporate this kind of meshing of the entertainment platforms.
Knee Deep tries to break things up by adding mini-games. It doesn’t work.
95% of the time, you can play Knee Deep with one hand. Like, no joke. As the central moments of the story are playing out, you are little more than a passive observer. Your interactions stem mostly from dialogue responses, choosing which NPC to talk to in a given room first, and selecting preset buttons to move the story forward.
Knee Deep tries to break this up and make players more active by incorporating mini-games, but these end up feeling underdeveloped and intrusive. One of them has you installing a fuse, in which you drag tiles over on a square in an attempt to match variously colored lines to create pathways. There’s almost little thought involved, as the solution can boil down to picking a square and dragging it over each section until you happen upon the right one (the game will tell you when you’re in the right spot) and then flip it until it clicks into place. These mini-games feel like they were designed for a mouse and keyboard and end up feeling lethargic on a controller.
Despite its obvious limitations, Knee Deep is an adventure worth taking. The game’s narrative evolves in a meaningful way as the acts fly by, taking twists and turns before reaching its ultimate conclusion. Most of the characters fail to make a significant impact, but I was mostly OK with it since Knee Deep is more of a world-driven narrative anyway.
At its budget price, Knee Deep is a decent buy that will get you about 3-4 hours worth of play time, and while it seems short, it feels like it’s just enough to keep the game from overstaying its welcome.