If anything, Prologue Games’ Knee Deep is heavily ambitious. The presentation, the swamp noir narrative, the dozens of voiced characters, the choice based dialogue trees with lasting consequences: all these elements mix together to create a murky bog to match the small town, Floridian setting. It’s definitely an interesting journey through the swamp, with some parts being too shallow and others being so deep that you drown a bit.
The most memorable aspect of the game is how it’s framed. As you start the adventure, you’re introduced to a huge curtain hanging in front of you and an announcer telling you to get ready for the show. Yes, Knee Deep is literally structured like a three-act play.
There’s a huge rotating stage with multiple sets. The main actors are whisked away to different areas via stage machinery and the walls of buildings slide down so we can see the action going on inside. While it’s sometimes a little difficult to keep track of where you are in the game’s world, the environments, or rather the presentation of the environments, are one of the best parts of the experience.
The narrative is complex and at times overblown. A lot of the twists and turns feel more pulpy than noir, as Prologue Games tries to pull off a delicate balance. The convoluted story is also made even more detailed with the inclusion of three different protagonists.
Romana Teague is a 20 year old blogger whose internet fame is at risk due to a serious misstep. Jack Bellet is down in his luck reporter who has not aged well with the times. And finally there’s KC Geddes, a former officer who now lies disgraced and at the end of his rope.
The three main characters, lead by Ramona, make their way through the mystery of Cypress Knee. The action kicks off after a famous actor seemingly hangs himself off the small town’s water tower.
What follows is a mishmash of events that range from tragic to topical to absurd. There’s government corruption, celebrity cults, swamp hermits, Native American cultural appropriation, explosions, and a few deadly gators. The narrative doesn’t always juggle all these concepts successfully but it does make the story one interesting ride.
I don’t want to ruin too much of the story and in some cases I can’t since I’m still trying to figure out the small details. Knee Deep is definitely built for multiple playthroughs with dialogue options and critical moment choices that change the story.
The reporting mechanic adds to the different character interactions as well. Each of the main characters are asked to write articles or submit reports during the game. You can go through a list of clues and leads that you’ve come across and choose which one to focus on. Then you can select if you spin it to be ‘safe,’ ‘edgy,’ or ‘inflammatory.’ These sections will shape your relationships with the secondary characters and change the story in small ways. It’s definitely a neat interactive aspect of the game so it’s a shame when it disappears half way through the story.
While there are a few features that add to the replayability of the game, there are still elements that fall short. Although a lot of the big moments change with what you choose to say, these parts are spread out by small conversations that only slightly deviate from a scripted path.
And during my replays I noticed that some of the dialogue with characters didn’t make sense. Like a certain character would always answer with the same amicable ending line even though you were just a jerk to them.
Skipping conversations can also be a frustrating endeavor. You can’t just mash a button to get to the next dialogue options. All lines are spoken in this game (which is a very impressive feature) but for some reason a portion of each sound clip has to play before you can move on. And if you hammer the button too much you might get to the dialogue option and pick something you didn’t want.
Saving is counter-intuitive and makes going back to try and fix your mistakes not as easy as it should be. There’s no quick save option and the only way to record your position and go back is to exit to the main menu. While this makes sense for a first play through, things are more difficult you’re trying to go back and see what different dialogue options do.
The autosaves do happen in between short segments that generally take place at one location. However, it’s annoying to have to play through them again and again just to try something different at a point near the end of the scene.
The writing and characterization in the game are strong enough to carry most of the story. The three leads are entertaining on their own but the chemistry between them is lacking (Ramona calls the other two ‘geezers’ on multiple occasions for example). And other than maybe KC Geddes, the character arcs are unfulfilling in the end. As people, they barely grow from the whole ordeal.
The collection of secondary characters were nice compliments to the main cast. For example, the dumb yet slimy councilman Gary Buckingham carried a lot of the humor with his ability to screw up common sayings:
Gary: [H]is shack may suffer some structural indignity issues.
KC: I suspect you meant structural integrity issues.
Gary: Ain’t got nothing to do with insurance policies.
Other characters like the wise swamp hermit, JD Gallant, and the self-assured Church of Us leader, Gordon Cordray, are quite memorable. There is a strange shift with some of the characters, however as they ended up just becoming mere stereotypes after interesting introductions.
Robert Woodside starts out as a Native American protester fighting the naming and theming conventions of the antiquated town attractions (Chief Roadside’s Wonderland) but he quickly shifts to mystical stereotype spouting out prophecies of doom for instance.
The actors voicing the many characters don’t fluctuate much; they mostly end up being solid performances. There are a lot of accents used which borders on overuse. But, whether it was a stylistic choice or an oversight, there isn’t a lot of emotion to back up the melodrama of the game.
People die, people are betrayed, and yet there’s little grieving or yelling or crying. Most of the times lines are delivered in a smart-ass nature that too many characters share, especially the three leads. For a plot that has the shocks of a soap opera, the acting is surprisingly toned down.
One of the worst parts of the acting/story are the Greek chorus sections. At certain points during the story, often the beginning of a new act, the townspeople of Cypress Knee will go into a rhyming verse to expand upon what’s going on in game. While it’s interesting that the player can choose some of these lines, a lot of them come out dull. It doesn’t help that the rhymes can be inconsistent and are quite forced.
The game’s audio makes some of the issues with the acting even more frustrating. It sounds like some actors recorded their lines in a large empty room with a lot of echo. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason with this as well; some points it seems like it effects all the actors, even the lead three.
Musically, the game does a bit better, but not by much. The twangy tracks sound like they’re out of a Florida bayou but a lot of them sound the same and they faded into the background soon after I started playing.
While I did get use to the graphics, they are pretty rough around the edges. A lot of the time the characters are so far away that I couldn’t nitpick the small details. However, the stock animations for the characters still stuck out. The zoomed out nature of the gameplay made sense as I technically watching as an audience member but that effected my ability to get too wrapped up with the characters.
Unfortunately the few mini-games scattered throughout the narrative took me out of the experience as well. These all were in the shape of puzzles where you had to rotate and slot pieces of something to make everything match. The difficulty of these segments were non-existent as a puzzle section would light up every time you found the right spot for it. You just needed to spin it to find the right side.
But really everything other than the story and the theater setting took a backseat. Knee Deep is billed as a play in three acts and in that context, it delivered. I’m not going to say it’s the best piece of art I’ve ever sat through, or even the best game narrative. But that ambition from Prologue Games to do something different is something I appreciated and would like to see more of, albeit with some polish.
The ultimate frustration is that I was left wanting to play more of the game and get wrapped up in the story again, but the choices around skipping text and saving made that an unexciting experience. That coupled with the voice audio issues and narrative still being on a mostly locked path means that I probably will never unlock all the mysteries of Cypress Knee.