I haven’t been to the theatre in a long while. I always reckon I’ll go see a show, but it seems like a hassle to venture out these days, especially on a cold winter’s night. Fortunately for gamers like me, Prologue Games want to bring the experience of a theatre show to the comforts of our own homes (blankets and hot water bottles at the ready) for a swamp noir episodic adventure – Knee Deep. Sounds odd, and it is, however, can it actually compete with the recent vast influx of story-driven games, most notably those from the Telltale lot, and deliver something to break the mould?
Knee Deep is a solo player affair, putting you firmly in place as a sort of director/writer for a three-Act production, of which all parts are present here. You’ll be the driving force behind the goings on in a tale that begins, rather grimly, with the hanging of an over-the-hill actor – Tag Kern – during a film shoot, bringing a lot of attention to the small town of Cypress Knee, Florida. The stage is set for three very different characters to investigate the incidents and come to their own conclusions.
There’s the ultra-hip blogger, Romana Teague (also known on the web as Phaedra), the down on his luck private investigator with a real cynical outlook on the world, K.C. Gaddis, and the struggling local reporter, Jack Bellet. Each of the investigative parties are controlled by the player, with decisions having to be made as to the route a conversion goes down, or which critical choices to perform. What’s instantly unique about the concept, aside from the theatre aspect, is the fact that as the ‘director’, it makes real sense to be dictating how the story unfolds; after all, it is your show.
Unlike many episodic games, you won’t find a series of QTEs, nor will you have any control regarding manual movements or free-roaming. It’s more of a point-and-click adventure, with the odd option of where to go next, and the rest mainly dominated by the conversation trees. Luckily for Knee Deep, the storytelling is strong from the get go.
In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I will be as vague as possible, however all is not what it seems at the scene of the crime. Getting to know all the involved parties and grasping their supposed role in proceedings, or even just in Cypress Knee as a whole, is extremely interesting as they’re all very over-the-top personality-wise. There’s a politician who has a real lack of understanding when it comes to popular sayings, hence he gets all in a muddle with words, leading to some much needed comedic relief to situations – despite knowing he’s about to be unintentionally humorous, it still makes you laugh time and time again.
This quiet little swampland is harbouring a fair few secrets, that’s for sure, and whilst that tides the game over for the most part, it suffers a little in stages. The first Act thrives upon the ability to character build, delving into how everyone seems to be interlinked somehow, and tells an utterly enthralling beginning to a mysterious tale. Act two has to rely on having a couple more twists and turns for the already developed cast, but tends to sway me into the boredom zone a little due to having a few too many monologue style ramblings. It’s a good job the third act ramps the action meter up, becoming crazier than I could ever imagine, sending the audience away with a bang.
It’s worth noting that whilst conversation dominates the amount of input required from the player, there are puzzles to solve – not too many, but enough to break up any potential tedium of talking. These revolve around the likes of fitting pieces into their correct places and the repetition of patterns shown to you. It’s nothing overly tasking though; if anything they are a bit too easy and the game offers unnecessary help at times.
There is also the more placid objective of posting up articles or reports based on your findings, with all three characters putting their own spin on them. Everything you learn goes into a journal, which is very handy for refreshing your memory of any happenings and clues.
Although Knee Deep is not visually advanced compared to a lot of other indie games, the developers have enhanced the scenes to the best of their ability with spotlight lighting to draw attention to the important goings on. The scenery and backdrops are very pop-up looking, as if they were sets on a real stage; each environment conveys the appropriate styling for Cypress Knee, from the swamplands to Chef Roadside’s Wonderland.
That theatre vibe is hammered home with great background music to really suit the tone of the game. Likewise when it comes to the voiceovers – despite occasionally being drowned out by music – the actors all fit the personas of the characters, and the sound effects on the voices are convincing enough to be believable as a theatre production.
Replayability is often lacking in narrative focussed games, with each and every gamer often forced down the same path every playthrough. And while you won’t get major differences here for having a second go, the minor decision making changes can add a bit more life into the game – therefore making any achievement cleaning up to feel less of a grind.
As far as story-driven games go, Knee Deep is certainly ranking high in terms of original concepts and the story itself is chock full of suspense, over dramatisation and mystery. Almost every character has something about them to be memorable, whilst the locations set the scene well without ever looking brilliant. After a strong start, a rocky middle that almost lost me and an unforgettable finale, Knee Deep is a great overall experience. Just don’t expect any fancy brain teasing puzzles.
If you want the theatre experience from home, there’s no other option than to get involved in the bizarre deadly mystery of Knee Deep.