Knee Deep Review

By Rebecca Smith,
Back in 2014, developer Prologue Games had a working build of the first act of their visual novel. It had multiple Lynch-esque protagonists whose life ambitions were on the downturn. It had a murder plot that was influenced by film noir. But Prologue wasn't happy. What it didn't have was something different — that special something that would make it stand out from the crowd of Adventure titles that were vying for gamers' attention. With this in mind, they came up with an idea. They turned their game into a massive theatrical production where the story takes place on a stage with Broadway-style sets and the characters deliver their lines in an obviously scripted manner. Knee Deep is certainly a strange game with a strange concept, but that's not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, that's exactly what the developer was trying to achieve.

Logo

Knee Deep's story unfolds across three separate acts. Initially released on Steam as three separate episodes, Xbox gamers have the pleasure of paying a single fee to receive all three acts in one package. As the lights dim and the performance begins, actor Tag Kern is found hanging from the water tower of Cypress Knee in Florida. First indications are that it's suicide, but as we can expect from a typical Adventure plot, things may not be all they seem. For the next 5-6 hours, players follow on as quirky blogger Romana Teague, belligerent journalist Jack Bellet and cynical private investigator K.C. Gaddis attempt to find out what is really going on in the small backwater town. Covering topics such as political conspiracy and religious fanaticism, the story verges from vaguely normal to the downright bizarre. This story is most certainly strange but is an enjoyable romp as long as you're not expecting a story that is grounded in reality.

The entire story takes place as the aforementioned theatre production. Each of the three acts is separated by an interval where players are prompted to perform such mundane acts as turning off their mobile phone or going to the toilet. During the play, the stage rotates through different sets with major buildings piecing together or pulling apart as needed. Characters walk across the stage, hitting their marks in time for the spotlight to fall upon them. Not only will they deliver their lines to each other, they constantly break the fourth wall to recite their lines to the audience, who duly reacts with gasps of shock when required. The whole thing is artificial. You're not meant to be the protagonists — you're meant to watch the protagonists do their thing.

Screen grab 1Why yes, yes he did.

Watching a theatre production doesn't suggest much player interaction and, well, that's not far off. There is no freedom of movement, exploration or object interaction — the game dictates all of that — but what you do get is the ability to choose conversation options... a lot of conversation options. These decide how the supporting characters will react to you or what evidence you'll find to help to prove your case. Throughout the first act of the game, players will also provide reports/blog posts/articles on their current findings. For these, you can choose the evidence you want to use for a source and the type of spin that you want to put on it: cautious, edgy or inflammatory. These reports will also affect the way that NPCs react to you; inflammatory may upset people whereas cautious might not open enough doors.

All this choice is fine when you know exactly what you're doing, but sometimes the conversation options can provide unpredictable results. Maybe the game doesn't tell you who will be delivering the next line or maybe a dialogue option doesn't give the result you wanted. The first time this happens, you feel like reloading the last checkpoint and trying again, but this really isn't necessary. Initially it feels like you're shaping the story and the game constantly reminds you when your choice affected the scene you are acting out, but as the game heads towards its conclusion you realise just how little difference it has made. The game's ending is the same regardless of the choices you've made before. While your choices seem unimportant in the overall scheme of things, it does mean it is impossible to fail and impossible to pick a dialogue choice that prevents you from continuing onwards, and that can only be a good thing.

Knee High DepotMoving into position for the start of the show

The one thing the game does allow you to do is to shape the background of the three protagonists... to an extent. Each of them has what seems like an intriguing backstory as to how they came to be in this town and you get to choose this. However, while references are made to bigger issues like racism, drug use and violence, the game never elaborates beyond a two sentence snippet before swiftly moving on. The result is you're left feeling like you know some of the supporting NPCs better than the main characters, like the ex-college professor whose dalliance with cocaine and underage girls led to jail time and a new career as a janitor. In a game where players are supposed to help shape the characters as they choose, this feels like a missed opportunity.

The game isn't entirely about choosing conversation options. Very infrequently players get the opportunity to solve a basic puzzle, be it rewiring a circuit or compiling a fingerprint, but these won't tax those brain cells much thanks to an over-eager hints system. Take the fingerprint puzzle below, for example. When you move a fingerprint fragment, the fragment will turn yellow to indicate when you are placing it in the correct spot. The result is that you don't think about where you're putting it — you just move it around the screen until it turns yellow. If the game feels like you're taking too long to complete a puzzle, it will even resort to telling you the answer. The puzzles could have offered a nice change in pace from the usual gameplay but feel more like an unwanted and unnecessary disruption.

Screen grab 2Put the fingerprint together as the game tells you

Just like every theatre production, there is the opportunity for something to go wrong in the middle of a performance. In the case of Knee Deep, the main issue was with the sound. While characters positioned centre and right could be heard clearly, all sound from the left was extremely quiet. It felt exactly as if I was positioned on the opposite side of the theatre where the sound couldn't reach me properly. Without the subtitles, a lot of key dialogue would have been lost. There was also the one-off issue of the character that missed her mark and continued walking off the stage and out of sight, forcing a reload of the last checkpoint to continue. None of these bugs are game breaking but the former has the potential to spoil the game if you're not careful.

Finally, we move on to the achievements. Of the game's 43 achievements, 16 are unmissable achievements that will unlock over the course of the story. Three others are missable achievements in Act 1 that can easily be earned if you are thorough. Unfortunately, the remaining 24 achievements are all based on story choices and will need repeated playthroughs (or careful checkpoint manipulation). There are three key decisions in act 3, all of which offer two options with an achievement tied to each, so you're looking at two playthroughs of almost the entire game. During one of these playthroughs, players will need to stick to one dialogue choice for each character (cynical, strange and belligerent), so I would recommend one playthrough where you choose your own dialogue and the second for when things get a bit strange. A third playthrough of Act 1 will also be required to be able to get all of the reports and opto test achievements. There is the ability to skip dialogue, so repeated playthroughs should be shorter, but they do tend to get boring when you're replaying the same story over and over.

Summary

Knee Deep is a game that is proud to be strange and different. Presented as a theatre performance, the visual novel allows players to suspend reality as they solve a mysterious death through the actions of three antihero characters. Very little player interaction is involved but conversation options can allow players to shape the characters so that it feels like they are creating their own story. Unfortunately, that feeling is short lived when all choices lead to the same story conclusion and characters are left underdeveloped. The puzzles that are intended to add extra gameplay end up falling flat because they're too easy. The result is an experience that is satisfactory for a single playthrough but becomes repetitive and boring across multiple playthroughs, which is something that the achievements encourage.
6 / 10
Knee Deep
Positives
  • Theatre setting is different
  • Can shape characters as you wish
  • No chance of failure
Negatives
  • Underdeveloped characters
  • Puzzles are too easy
  • Sound issues
Ethics
The reviewer spent 12 hours choosing far too many conversation options while turning her characters into drug fiends and extortionists. She won all 43 of the game's achievements. An Xbox One copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.
Rebecca Smith
Written by Rebecca Smith
Rebecca is the Newshound Manager at TrueGaming Network. She has been contributing articles since 2010, especially those that involve intimidatingly long lists. When not writing news, she works in an independent game shop so that she can spend all day talking about games too. She'll occasionally go outside.