Indie

‘Knee Deep, Act 1: Wonderland’ Review

    Platforms Windows, Mac, Linux    Developer Prologue Games       

Genre Point and Click Adventure   Platform Played On Mac

Billed as “a swamp noir in three acts”, Knee Deep is a mystery adventure game that relies on player choice to shape the fate of its three main protagonists. Set up as a stage production, players are transported through the various locations in the story, along with the characters/”actors” of the show. In an interesting approach to design, Knee Deep goes from “intensely self aware of stage convention” to “representation of reality” at the drop of a hat. It takes a while to stylistically get used to once you become invested in the story, but it’s a clever nod to the melodrama of old mystery theater, and is certainly appreciated.

The curtains rise on the swampy Florida town of Cypress Knee at the beginning of Act 1, where the body of has-been actor, Tag Kern, hangs from the local water tower. Did he commit suicide? What is murder? Who knows! It’s all the town can talk about. It’s the most attention this little town has gotten since an exposé on couple/siblings “Aunt Mom and Uncle Dad” hit the major news circuit several years prior. Now, reporters, investigators and newshounds alike find themselves swarming to the wayside swampland, just to get the scoop on the actor’s death.

Throughout the game, players will take control of three such individuals: Ramona Teague, a young blogger for FanRage.com, Jack Bellet, a local reporter who’s been more than down on his luck, and K.C. Gaddis, a private investigator with a checkered past. Through a combination of blog posts, questioning, mini-puzzles, news reports, and investigation, players find themselves immersed in the world of Cypress Knee, Florida. As the story unfolds, we begin to figure out what really happened to Kern – however, there’s more going on here than just the death of an actor…

Knee Deep operates in a fashion that serves well for a murder-mystery melodrama: it’s a point and click adventure game that allows you to gather clues and explore your surroundings. However, as much as this game touts the power of choice and exploration, these features felt very limited.

The options you do have in a scenario don’t seem to weigh in dramatically on the story. Players can collect clues in an area or chose to talk to certain people, but the game is built as such that you can’t progress forward without doing all of the options within a scene. Yes, you’re getting to pick the order of events, but it’s usually the difference between 2 or 3 options, and these choices have yet to be impactful. However, this could all change as the story develops and the player choices carry over into the acts.

Another slight disappointment was the story posting mechanic. At the end of a scene where information has been revealed, you will be asked to write a blog post/ investigative report/ news story, depending on which character you’re in control of. The concept is fantastic – you pick a fact, rumor or tid-bit of information you want to write a story about, and then select the spin you want to put on it. Depending on what you post as well as how you post it, your relationship with other characters changes. It’s great in theory, but doesn’t quite deliver in practice (yet). My choices didn’t seem to change too much, as far as I could tell. Yes, some characters gave me a bit of a verbal slap on the wrist for things I reported on, but it didn’t have much more of a lasting impact than that. Perhaps this will be more important later on, as this is only the first installment.

One a more positive note, one thing I did enjoy about Act 1 were the mini puzzles that popped up along the way. From rotating puzzle pieces to put together a barcode, to answering a questionnaire to determine eligibility for a religious cult, they kept me entertained throughout. The mini games themselves felt natural to plot and were a nice break from simply clicking through dialogue trees. While there were only 4 or 5 of them in this Act, they were my favorite parts of my experience.

The further I found myself into Knee Deep, Act 1, the more I found myself really engaging with the material. Unfortunately, this didn’t really kick in until the first hour of this two hour episode. The game throws quite a few names and environmental references at you in the beginning, with which your characters already have a pre-established relationship. On one hand, I’m inclined to applaud the writers for the level of detail and foreknowledge that the story contains – it demands a bit more attention from its players. On the other the other hand, I was left feeling confused for the majority of the game, which did not make for a particularly enjoyable first hour of gameplay.

As is with most episodic stories, the first installment is usually an information dump. Sometimes it’s a well paced information dump that you don’t realize is happening, and other times it’s blatantly obvious. While I give Act 1 the benefit of the doubt, as I became very engaged towards the end, I hope the pacing of the story changes with the next two acts. I’m interested to see what will happen next, as this one ended on quite the cliffhanger.

What originally drew my attention to this game was not only the story form, but the absolutely gorgeous design concept. The stronger part of this game is definitely the swampy and visibly deteriorating set of Cypress Knee, along with its hazy, folk-guitar based soundtrack. The combination of the two paints the picture of a murky, once lively town that lost its footing somewhere along the way of the industrial boom. Sure, it’s a common cliche among mystery stories, but the presentation of Cypress Knee is one that’s done in a way that feels organic to this particular telling of this particular story.

As much as I love the idea of playing with the traditional conventions of a staged production, it feels slightly awkward in Knee Deep. I absolutely love the concept in theory; characters moving locations through a simple set change, buildings tearing away to reveal characters inside, sets moving up and down in front the audience, it’s great to see. I don’t think I’ve seen this done in any game I’ve ever played. What’s important to remember in design, however, is that the inclusion of a feature does not necessarily entail success in execution. It neither adds nor takes away from the overall experience. If this game weren’t set within a theater space or played with the traditional conventions of theater, it would more or less be the same. It doesn’t add anything except a wow factor to the experience, which is not reason enough when your game focuses so heavily on narrative.

As ambitious as this game was, it feels more or less not quite done yet. There are adjustments that need to be made to the story’s pacing, a few awkward dialogue lines to be ironed out, and some mechanics that need to be reexamined for their purpose within the game’s overall goal. However, I’m not counting Knee Deep out just yet: the concept is fantastic, the presentation is beautiful and the story, as of the end of Act 1, is picking up. I’m very excited to see what the next installment will bring and overall, despite my criticisms, I did find myself enjoying this game.

There’s a host of things that would keep me from wholeheartedly recommending it, but for $24.99 as a season pass for all three acts (with further discounts in the near future), it’s worth checking out. If you’re looking for a new, eye-catching murder mystery that will most likely grow stronger as the acts release, check out this first act and keep your eyes peeled for the next installment.

The Good 

  • Stunning visuals
  • Original concept
  • Entertaining mini games
  • Story becomes engaging as the story progresses
  • Awesome soundtrack
  • Cliffhanger at the end of Act 1 is worth it!

The Bad 

  • Lack of voice acting (due to production cost, but would add so much more to the game)
  • Short overall game experience (2 hours)
  • Inclusion of theater conventions are cool, but don’t seem to be needed
  • Story, while interesting, takes too much time to develop
  • Limited amount of choices
  • Choices themselves don’t feel impactful or purposeful
  • Doesn’t feel quite finished yet

 The Score: 6.5


Rebeccah Bassell is an editor for Analog Addiction and a lover of all things games! You can like them on Facebookfollow her personal blog, The Rhetorical Gamer, or pretend to be her friend on Twitter. I think she’d really appreciate that

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