Knee Deep is one of those games that turn out to be completely different than one would expect. The adventure game genre is having another renaissance these days, with market leaders like Telltale Games churning out quality titles that manage to stand proudly with the genre’s pedigree. It can be tough for independent developers to get their titles noticed in a gaming landscape littered with things that go BOOM, but, as the industry’s history has taught us, even a low-budget adventure game that has little in the way of “whiz-bang” but is long on story can get noticed. Is Knee Deep one of those games? Hmm…
Ever since the days of Hammett and Chandler, people have kept a soft spot in their hearts for the noir tale. At first glance, Knee Deep’s artwork pulls you in with promises of the seedy, Los Angeles brand of noir that fans of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe have loved for years. Knee Deep, from the moment it boots up on your machine, makes the same sort of promises, and charmingly turns expectations upside down. Yes, players will get the humid, sticky goodness they expect but they also get a few surprises along the way. The game is broken up into three acts and plays out on your screen like a stage play from a local university that had somehow received a large grant from Thornton Melon. Players find themselves thrust into the role of a blogger with a few problems and a reputation to correct, who has also managed to aggravate law enforcement when she takes a wrong turn and finds herself at the scene of an actor’s apparent suicide in a dilapidated, racist-themed amusement park. From that moment on, players will have to unravel the events that lead to the actor’s death and, as usual, things are never what they seem. Throughout the course of events, players will assume the lives of the blogger (Romana Teague), a washed-up reporter with very little parenting skills (Jack Bellet) and a hard-boiled PI (K.C. Gaddis).
Graphically, the title is on par with what should be expected from an independent title. The scenery is excellent at conveying the proper milieu, and does a fine job bringing the characters to life. The animations can be a bit stilted at times, and the characters possess that good old Resident Evil trait of turning like tanks. It can be said with no hesitation, however, that the story contained in this title is good enough that you won’t even pay attention to any graphical shortcomings after it pulls you in.
The sound design is… well, weak. Voiceovers and narration were added late in the development cycle (after the first chapter made it to market) and could have used a bit more polish. Some of the voice acting can be difficult to hear at times, and the whole sound design comes off as a bit broken. Imagine an old wax record from the time of Philip Marlowe added to the game at a really low bitrate and you’ve got the idea. Some effort was made to make the sound appear as if it was actually taking place on a stage with an audience, but the presentation as a whole is just plain muddy.
The other great surprise with Knee Deep is that it doesn’t play quite like any adventure game you may remember. Instead of maneuvering your character around the scene while picking up anything that isn’t nailed down, your character does most of the moving for you (save for a few obligatory puzzles). It is up to the player to choose the style, words and attitude of the character’s responses and, therefore, affect everyone you meet. Your decisions in this regard can lead to npcs either falling in love or hate with you as events unfold. The game reminds you before and after you make a decision or statement that will affect future events.
The entire story is told across three acts. As the acts progress, the interactions with NPCs come to the forefront rather drastically, as new characters are introduced in bulk. The importance of your characters’ motivations kind of takes a back seat as you get near the conclusion, but overall the story is quite engrossing. Player decisions will not affect the outcome of the story (and you cannot “die” in the game), but it will affect how you are perceived and treated by others along the way. Second or third playthroughs will not affect the outcome, but the path toward it will be different.
All in all, most fans of the adventure or noir genre will love this game. There are many subtle and not-so-subtle references to other great works (a Blade Runner homage appears early in the game) that will bring a smile to those of you looking for them. If one is prepared to accept the fact that this is a budget-priced indie title and can set your expectations accordingly, you’ll find that Knee Deep glimmers like the Maltese Falcon with a fresh paint job.