Knee Deep Review

Version Reviewed – Xbox One

Knee Deep was an unexpected delight. I went into the game knowing nothing – literally nothing – about it, not even that it existed up until I received a review code for it. And, honestly, I think that made a dramatic difference to my experience.

A swamp noir adventure by indie developer Prologue Games, Knee Deep is equal parts charming and clever. Set as a stage play and told in 3 acts – complete with the opening of curtains, the flaring of spotlights, and a loud, appreciative audience – Knee Deep oozes the sort of atmosphere from its opening minutes that so many other games struggle to develop over hours of playtime.

A great deal of the immersion comes from the game’s clever use of lighting. It isn’t a pretty game by any stretch of the imagination. Look close enough and you’ll see the dull textures, the out-of-sync facial expressions, the slightly jerky physical animations. But the game – cleverly – never really invites you to take a close look.

By shrouding most of what you see onscreen in shadow and putting a spotlight on what you need to be looking at, Knee Deep does a magnificent job of keeping you focused on the experience itself and less on the graphical quality. The title card image I’ve used up top is an example.

This really is important because Knee Deep is a terrifically immersive game.

The stage-play style of narration is something I haven’t seen before and Knee Deep uses it to great effect. The camera flies across the stage as the story switches back and forth between the protagonists/actors. When scenes change, the background of the stage rotates with a great clanking and groaning of gears and machinery. Characters move back and forth between smaller sets, with props snapping up from the ground to create bits of indoor and outdoor scenery. And while all of this was – if I had to guess – the result of a limited budget, the brilliance of the execution serves to enhance the experience of Knee Deep rather than detract from it.

The voice acting is less impressive – the actors do a fairly good job but it doesn’t quite live up to the quality of the background score or the on-stage cleverness. Dialogue isn’t especially great either – there’s a running joke involving an idiot politician who regularly confuses similar sounding words, which is dragged on for way, way too long. I generally don’t skip dialogue in games, the result of decades of conditioning by RPGs, but I skipped past literally everything he had to say in the second half of the game (after reading the subtitles) just because he was so bloody annoying.

And that’s a bit of a shame, because Knee Deep is a game in which you really shouldn’t feel inclined to skip dialogue. The story – and the first two acts in particular – do a fantastic job of setting up what feels like an imaginative, thrilling, complex plot.

The game opens with an actor hanging himself on location in the town of Cypress Knee, drawing the game’s three protagonists to the scene to investigate his death. The characters you play as are blogger Romana Teague, reporter Jack Bellet, and private investigator K.C. Gaddis. You frequently shift between the three characters, playing out their individual scenes – exclusively through dialogue; on the rare occasions when there’s combat, you’re never in direct control – and moving the story forward. Naturally, there is also the occasional mini-game but those are few and far between.

Almost every conversation you have with NPCs in the game has some sort of impact. Reference to thing you’ve said and done frequently come up – sometimes in passing, sometimes with dramatic story consequences. Very literally, your choices can determine who lives and who dies, and that knowledge only adds to the tension.

Mild spoiler starts below.

There was one point at which a character (non-protagonist) that I had temporary control of was invited to a shady-seeming meeting. I was quite fond of the idealistic chap and I had a bad feeling about the whole thing so I decided to skip it. That saved his life, he left Cypress Knee and lived out the rest of his days happily ever after. You have no idea how relieved I was because the body count was racking up at this point in the game. I was thrilled to be able to have helped someone dodge a bullet.

Mild spoiler over.

There are plenty of moments like that in Knee Deep and the game is probably at its strongest in the first two acts. The story feels tense and thrilling, there are a number of ways in which things can go bad, and the stakes feel genuinely high for the protagonists and the town of Cypress Knee. Unfortunately, in the third act, it goes completely off the rails. Or, at least, I felt like it did. What was a grounded, political, noir thriller suddenly becomes about, well … something significantly less grounded.

The third act came as a significant surprise because, even for the first half of the act, Knee Deep was doing a hell of a job of throwing story surprises my way. But towards the end, it felt almost like Prologue Games didn’t quite know how to wrap up all of the plot threads they had spun out, so they decided to throw some crazy into the mix.

That was really the only disappointment in the whole thing. After the incredible first two and a half acts, the ending messed up how much I had grown to love about the game. That doesn’t make Knee Deep a bad experience. But the ending is what stops it from being a damn near perfect one.

So, to sum this up …

I find myself inclined to recommend Knee Deep highly. The first two acts are incredible fun and it really is a delight to poke through the story threads and try to anticipate what’s going to happen next and what the consequences of your decisions will be.

It’s not the prettiest, or best narrated, or most immersive game I’ve played – but Knee Deep gets so much right that it is far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s atmospheric, it’s fun, and it’s cleverly presented. And if you can get past the ending, you may find that there’s a great deal to enjoy here.

Trevor Coelho

Owner, writer, content janitor at Lizard Lounge
Writes things. Occasionally pokes head out a door or window. Looks around. Gets a bit scared. Then goes inside where it's nice and safe, and writes more things.
Trevor Coelho
4

Summary

I find myself inclined to recommend Knee Deep highly. The first two acts are incredible fun and it really is a delight to poke through the story threads and try to anticipate what’s going to happen next and what the consequences of your decisions will be.

It’s not the prettiest, or best narrated, or most immersive game I’ve played – but Knee Deep gets so much right that it is far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s atmospheric, it’s fun, and it’s cleverly presented. And if you can get past the ending, you may find that there’s a great deal to enjoy here.

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