A Hollywood actor is dead, and there’s a media-frenzy around it. There’s also intrigue and danger and a blogger, a print journalist and a private detective are Knee Deep in it!
Developer: Prologue Games
Publisher: Prologue Games
Release Date: July 2015 – March 2016
Played: Full story
Purchase At: Steam
Knee Deep is a theatre play where you, a member of the audience, have control over the events. The game has a wonderful theatre style, where characters move across stages and buildings open up to reveal the different set pieces for scenes. It’s a fantastic style and the animators made sure that the characters stood as actors would on a play, in ¼ profile so they never have their backs to the audience. It helps the immersion like you wouldn’t believe. The style also helps sell the admittedly simple gameplay, consisting of mostly dialogue choices, as you feel like a director feeding your actors their lines.
Knee Deep’s visual design is all about selling this theatre experience, and because of that the main focus is on the the sets, stages and the transitions between them. While character models look nice, they can sometimes be a bit stiff in their movements. But as they rarely do anything more than just stand, walk and talk, you barely notice it.
One thing that does stand out on the visual side and which I was sad to see go during the second and third acts, was the noir look for K.C. Gaddis. His first scene is entirely black and white and the rest have faded colours, selling the hard-boiled detective story perfectly. Sadly, as he works with the other protagonists for the rest of the game, they couldn’t keep it around. I was sad to see it go, as it was unique, and very noir-authentic.
Knee Deep is a game of choices, and reactions to them vary considerably. Unlike other choice-based games, in Knee Deep you feel their effect immediately, from one scene to the next. Characters react differently to you, even refuse to answer your questions outright. Choices will carry over between acts but I loved having that immediate effect, it felt more realistic, helped me feel more in my characters’ shoes.
Some of the choices during Knee Deep’s first two acts come from your reports to your employers. Romana Teague writes news headlines for the news website she works for, Jack Bellet reports to his boss at the newspaper and K.C. Gaddis, the private detective, reports to his clients and passes along his expenses—mostly treats for his awesome dog, Monroe. Halfway through the second act this mechanic goes away, as the characters’ priorities shift and the pacing picks up considerably.
One thing that surprised of me Knee Deep’s gameplay was the presence of puzzles. There aren’t many, but the ones I found were really fun, particularly the one to active the tower fuse at the end of Act I. Puzzles appear sparingly and I can count their number with one hand, but they give you a nice break from the choice-base gameplay.
Knee Deep’s story is a noir plot, with mystery and intrigue where you can’t trust anyone. It all begins with Tag Kern’s death, an apparent suicide, hanging from a tower. Romana “Phaedra” Teague, Jack Bellet and K.C. Gaddis each come to the town of Cypress Knee to find out the truth, though their reasons for doing so are very different. Romana wants to keep her job, which is in danger after she makes a terrible mistake. K.C. is about to kill himself when he gets the job from the movie studio Kern worked for. Jack Bellet is in town, trying to be in his son’s life after a messy divorce but he doesn’t care much about the dead actor, his keen eyes looking for the scoop on a land deal and corrupt officers. But his boss doesn’t want him touching that. Not that Jack cares much for his opinion.
During the first act, the priority is finding the reason for Kern’s death, interrogating those closest to him and the people of the town, getting what they saw, whom they spoke to, and the general mood. Was he suicidal or did he have help?
But as you progress through Knee Deep, a conspiracy starts popping up and the actor’s death is just a single thread in a much larger mystery, one that kept me hooked to the very end—especially as more bodies drop, making me hope for the whoddunit—until the final twist and revelation lost me.
During Act 3, on the big villain reveal, when you find out what it’s been leading to, the twist comes completely out of left field. You have one scene where you can deduce what’s going to happen, and I did, but it still felt off, discordant with the story’s overall style, losing some of the noir and heading straight into The Twilight Zone, but more on this later.
But beyond the story and the compelling Noir mystery, Knee Deep is a game of its characters, and characterisation is top of the line. Each of the characters you meet has their own personality, stories, motivations and most importantly quirks. Romana drops non-sequiturs, K.C. is a true noir cynic and Jack is just belligerent.
But it’s not just the main characters. Remy speaks of himself in the third person. Buck uses the wrong words every time and his mental dictionary is a mess. Gordon Cordray is the devil in a suit, you know it and you know he knows it as well. They’re all larger than life in many ways, over the top even, but they still feel very human, very real and perhaps most importantly, they fit perfectly in this noir mystery setting.
I love the music in Knee Deep. It has that moody beat you hear in the best detective thrillers, sometimes a single note, a guitar strum or a short melody. Prologue Games knows how to use their music, how to signal the end of a scene or let you know what he mood is with the soundtrack. But there are also Swamp Blues pieces that fit perfectly with the setting and help sell Cypress Knee to you, makes it feel like any town you’d find somewhere in Florida. The best thing is that they make the swamp blues work perfectly with the noir jazzy style. It’s a strangely awesome combination.
Speaking of Florida, Wes Platt, lead writer for Prologue Games, used to be a reporter in Florida, and he has wild stories of the weird things that happen in the state, the headlines you’d believe false anywhere else. You can see some of these experiences influencing his writing in Knee Deep. From the quirky characters to that twist in Act 3—the one that lost me—it feels part of that “Florida is weird,” vibe. In one key scene in Act 3, K.C.’s dog Monroe does something incredible to which Bellet says, “It’s not Florida enough…”
While the story is a serious mystery for most of the season, Wes’ writing keeps that Florida weirdness present. It wears it proudly. It’s why the situations, organisations and characters can be over the top without becoming cartoonish. But it’s also why I dislike that Act 3 twist so much. If Knee Deep had taken the time to properly develop that plot thread, then it would’ve worked wonderfully, yet another surreal element of Florida weirdness. As it stands, it feels rushed and ineffective.
Knee Deep is a wonderfully compelling mystery with amazing characters that embraces the brand of weirdness you can only find in Florida. It makes even the most outlandish characters and situations work well, though it does stretch the limits of your suspension of disbelief.
But more than that, it made me love the characters and I hope Prologue Games keeps them around for their next games. I want to know more of Romana, K.C. and Jack!
5/5 – Hell Yes!