Many games claim to feature unique concepts, but few of them truly deliver. More often than not, a unique combat system ends up being a mash-up of influential styles from other games, while a supposedly ground-breaking survival sim might simply include an additional stat bar or two. Knee Deep doesn't shout about what makes it unique, but it is truly unlike any other game that I've played recently. If anything, it reminds me most of the text adventure games from the 1980's, but to suggest that it is anywhere near as linear or basic as those games would be hugely unfair.
Knee Deep is a non-linear murder mystery that is acted out by characters in a stage play. The player takes control of an unseen director and influences the dialogue and decisions made by three of the key protagonists. There is no direct movement control, inventory management or on screen exploration, but there are some potentially challenging puzzles that are made too easy by a much too willing hint system. The story itself is what will keep players hooked, and the game is clearly built around it. The characters are entangled in unexpected ways, and the twists and turns throughout the game kept me guessing until the very end, when, in true film noir style, the grand finale was revealed.
Here's what I liked:
A welcome change of pace – With nothing to shoot, no legs to break and no chance of failure, Knee Deep presents a completely different kind of challenge. You'll be a spectator (sorry, The Director) through about six hours of storytelling across three acts, but with each decision can come to a critical change in the way that story plays out. Unlike (for example) some of the Telltale series which are also heavily story driven, but much more linear, Knee Deep genuinely feels as though decisions have consequences. Indeed, there are numerous critical choices throughout the game that affect which characters will make it, and what happens to them and when.
Film noir – Considering how many narrative driven games feature drab, tired storylines that have no impact, Knee Deep is refreshing in that it puts story first and delivers a great experience. With standout characters, a widely compelling script and an ultimately complex plot that begs to be replayed, this is a game that should appeal to a more mature audience that will take the time to appreciate it.
Stage and screen – Although I wouldn't want every game to adopt this style, I enjoyed the way that Knee Deep is wrapped up like a stage play with the player as The Director, rather than attempting to embed the player within the story. Rather than disconnecting me from the experience as you might expect, I feel more attachment and interest in the wellbeing of the characters on stage and the outcome of the broader story as a result of this approach.
Here's what I didn't like
Interactive storytelling – There isn't much that I don't like about Knee Deep, but thinking about what others might consider essential, I have to say that there isn't much of a game here. Knee Deep is interactive storytelling at its finest, but it is just that. The game can be played exclusively single-handed, with only the face buttons needed to make in-game choices, and there are very, very few decisions that need to be done under any time pressure. There are several puzzles that appear complex at face value, but the veneer of challenge dissipates once you realize that moving a connected component into even vaguely the right place will highlight it to indicate you are "getting warmer."
Nitpicking – There are no other major gameplay issues in Knee Deep (assuming that the interactive storytelling approach is of interest to you) but there are some minor technical hitches that I noticed over the course of my time with the game. Graphically, Knee Deep is functional rather than exceptional, but there are still occasional glitches in frame rate on faster moving scenes (of which there are few.) The other technical issue I found was what appeared to be (thankfully minor) dialogue hiccoughs relating to previous choices. On occasion, it seemed as if characters in the game thought I had made one of the other dialogue options, or at the very least their responses to me made less sense than they should. These are a minor complaint that is by no means game breaking, and shouldn't put you off if the game sounds otherwise appealing.
I enjoyed Knee Deep and I would welcome the release of similar interactive stories if they were all created to the same exacting standard. The story, the script and the characters in Knee Deep, as well as the setting, all contribute to a fantastic experience that is entirely unique at the moment. Knee Deep a game for anyone who wants to experience something a little calmer, a bit more cerebral and a little bit different to the norm.
Score: Highly Recommended
Knee Deep was developed by Prologue Games and published by Wales Interactive on Xbox One. It released on February 3, 2017, for $14.99. A copy was provided for review purposes.