There’s nothing quite like Knee Deep, you know. Sure enough, it might look like a bazillion other episodic interactive adventures, but Knee Deep’s embrace of a unique theatrical presentation coupled with a truly dynamic narrative that actually reacts properly to your choices, add up to create a genre entry unlike any other seen on PS4.
A trip to the theatre unlike any other
An unapologetically noir themed tale, Knee Deep weaves a deep narrative set in Cypress Knee, a backwater Florida town that has been given some degree of notoriety on account of the amusingly named Tag Kern, a seemingly popular Hollywood actor committing suicide there. Or did he?
And so begins an all encompassing, swampland conspiracy as Knee Deep splits the action between retired journalist Jim Bellet, a trendy blogger called Romana Teague and a down on his luck detective by the name of KC Gaddis, with everyone from local people to a shady cult called the Church of Us being implicated in the crime. Thus, it falls to you to discover the culprit(s) and solve the mystery behind the thespian’s untimely demise.
Framed as a theatre presentation where all the characters are portrayed by actors and the environments appear as carousel bound pop-up sets, Knee Deep makes the most of its unique setting by employing pitch-perfect acoustics that do a great job of making the player buy into its eccentric, though innovative perspective. It’s a fresh and unique presentation which makes Knee Deep feel apart from its genre contemporaries.
Developer Prologue Games quest to separate Knee Deep from the status quo, naturally extends into the game itself, too. The litany of point and click adventure fare that makes up the majority of Telltale Games output predicates itself on the notion of player choice, and how those decisions made by the player affect not just the narrative, but the characters and the manner that they then react in turn.
Prologue Games takes this whole concept a step further by not only reminding the player that a given character will react to what they did or said earlier, but also by allowing such conversation to literally shape the histories of each of the characters going forward. Simply put, Knee Deep does a better job of “he/she will remember that” than the house that The Walking Dead built has managed in recent times.
This system is also one that dovetails beautifully into Knee Deep’s other narrative device of how the vocations of each of the main characters play into the storyline. Though Gaddis, Teague and Bellet are all in separate professions, each of them share a commonality in their jobs; namely they are all responsible for reporting on their findings to the general public and it’s here that the player is granted a decent amount of creative latitude to affect how these discoveries are conveyed.
Each time you send in a story, write up a blog post or submit a case file, you have the ability to inflect how you report your findings in either cautious, edgy or inflammatory tones. As such, each piece of information and how you convey it, directly affects the narrative. For example, as the blogger Teague, you might be discouraged from putting an inflammatory spin on a corruption story, whereas as the more conservative Bellet, your editor will treat you well if you report cautiously on a issue, but the townspeople will see you as a shill and be less likely to impart key information to you.
Because of the numerous connotations that each report can have, in addition to the great variety of paths that the story can go aside from that, Knee Deep offers far more than the 6-8 hours of play that one might expect from its trio of acts. Breaking things up a little are the occasional puzzle, which in being often little more than block sliding conundrums, feel more like unnecessary distractions, rather than bespoke ways to test your grey matter.
What’s interesting is that outside of the puzzles, such as they are, Knee Deep rarely pauses to catch its breath. Instead, one conversation leads straight to another, and another, and another, meaning that Knee Deep has no downtime where you’re just stuck trying to find something to do. Of course, the flip side of such a brisk pace is that Knee Deep doesn’t allow the player to do much else other than talk and solve puzzles; there is no walking about, no QTE action sequences or anything else of the sort to get stuck into. Essentially, if you were hoping for a point and click adventure that rigidly follows the Telltale template, you might be a little disappointed with what Prologue Games has wrought here.
A handful of shortcomings
There is so much to love about Knee Deep’s unique theatrical presentation and narrative, both being thematically inspired as they are, by the likes of True Detective and the various works of David Lynch. Where Knee Deep exits stage left a tad, is in the realms of the technical.
With noticeable slowdown in the early going and during scenes of stage transition, coupled with relatively simplistic looking character models and animations, Knee Deep doesn’t exactly give a grand account of itself in this regard considering that, for all intents and purposes, this game could have just easily been a PS3 effort.
Equally the voice acting, while fine for the most part, occasionally wanders into cringeworthy territory with the three main protagonists being performed admirably, but outside of that, the quality of spoken performances largely falls off a cliff.
At a glance, Knee Deep might seem not too dissimilar from other episodic interactive adventures. Dig a little deeper though, and a surprisingly innovative take on the genre soon reveals itself.
With its branching narrative structure, noir stylings and wonderful theatrical aesthetic, Knee Deep possesses enough to intrigue beyond its seemingly blatant shortcomings to sustain interest from beginning to end.