Interactive stories as video games are something that you either hate or love.
By taking some of the control out of the player’s hands, they’re easy targets for criticism. It’s happened time and time again with Telltale Games, who have helped to shape the renaissance of the sub-genre with plenty of other developers following suit, often to the detriment of their own ideas.
Luckily for Knee Deep, its developers have eschewed tried and tested mechanics to make something really quite unique.
Ported to the PS4 and Xbox One after a hugely successful stint on PC, Knee Deep sits you down to take part in a theatrical performance. Taking control of the director, the premise is pure Shane Black: down-and-out actor found hanging from a tower in the outback of nowhere. “Directing” three different investigators, it’s down to you to unfurl the truth over the game’s three acts.
Of the three, the argumentative blogger Romana Teague is the standout, offering wit and unbecoming dialogue to the residents of Cypress Knee. While the town mourns, Romana can offer up strange responses that must be how baby boomers think millennials talk – she can just randomly blurt out “pineapple” at one point. When compared to the maudlin Gaddis and grouchy Bellet, Romana is the character who you’ll want to keep coming back to.
The townspeople of Cypress Knee divulge information over time – one may be clammed up in the first act, but by the third, they’re splurging information. As the gameplay is as linear as it gets (you don’t even have to control movement), you’re shunted from one scene to the next, which allows greater emphasis on building rapport or destroying relationships through dialogue trees. Knee Deep is a game all about implications, particularly when it comes to hard you go at the shady definitely-not-Scientologists that cast a shadow over the town. The trickles of information allows the three to submit reports to their respective superiors with the player being able to choose which tone they spin it in. Report the straight facts as Romana and her clickthirsty editor will be on the phone within seconds. Likewise, take the hyperbolic route and you could be dealing with a town full of people mad about your misreporting.
The transitions between scenes are served up through stage rotations, giving the game’s events an oddly appealing flipbook feel. Watching the sets appear behind you is a nice way of adding to Knee Deep’s gothic undertones, which works wonders with the backwaters-inspired music. As good as it is, the default settings are slightly overpowered in the audio department, meaning that dialogue is drowned out in discordant guitar strums. It’s easily sorted, however.
Dialogue is delivered ably by the game’s voice actors, though there is a distinct range of quality between most of them. Some are superbly suited, while others just don’t match the characters they’re playing at all, ultimately falling flat. While this may be excused as a reflection of the dull nature of living in a cultural and ethical black hole, consistency between performances would have made some conversations more bearable.
The story, without spoiling anything, is a slow burner that does not rush to get to its conclusion. The pacing may deter some players from reaching its closing credits, but as long as you can stick with its early lashings of exposition, the narrative becomes Lynchian and gripping. It admittedly loses some of its lustre in its last hour, which is a shame, but for keeping the interest of someone who can’t hold a conversation for more than a minute without mentally wandering off to deleted scenes from The Wicker Man remake, it deserves some praise.
Knee Deep was produced by a small team, and you can tell. Some of the animations (particularly Bellet using stairs, eesh) are ropey and a lot of the characters models are rough around the edges. The framerate also seems to drop at times on PS4, largely brought on by reading and skipping dialogue before the voice actors finish their lines. It isn’t too invasive, but it does distract a little.
Knee Deep won’t be for everyone. In fact, if you hate everything Telltale have created, you will more than likely despise what this game’s going for. Otherwise, remember that the world’s your stage and get lost in the backwaters of Florida for a few hours with one of the shining examples of interactive storytelling at its finest.
PS4 copy provided by publisher
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