Knee Deep Act 1: Wonderland is part one of a trio of narrative-driven adventure titles from indie developer Prologue Games. While Telltale has long had a stranglehold on the adventure genre, Knee Deep is entirely unique in its style, harking back to the glory days of classic adventure games like Grim Fandango and the Monkey Island series. While the variation in its text-heavy, pulpy world isn’t always successful, it’s different enough that you should stand up and take note.
Knee Deep takes place in the murky depths of the Florida bayou, in a sleepy little backwater town called Cypress Knee. The town is as much a character as the central trio you play as, who are markedly different but all there for just one reason – to find the truth. The story opens with the death of Tag Kern, a Hollywood celebrity and eccentric who had converted to the cult-like Church of Us. Kern decides to hang himself from a tourist attraction for reasons entirely unknown to his nearest and dearest. Naturally, all is not as it seems, and the whispers of suicide turn to twisted tales of a possible murder.
You take on the role of three different characters: Romana Teaque, Jack Bellet and K.C Gaddis. Teague is a cheeky blogger trying to find a story to stop her losing her job. Jack Bellet is a grizzled newspaper reporter, pestered on all sides by an overbearing boss and a dragon of an ex-wife, and K.C Gaddis is on the verge of eating a bullet before a call comes to investigate Kern’s death. He also has a dog, because every video game needs a dog.
Knee Deep has an entirely novel approach to its storytelling, and doesn’t bother with convention. The opening of the game pitches it as a stage play in three acts, and everything in the game takes place on the boards of this virtual theatre. In fact, the first branching options are to decide whether you want to read the playbill, or turn off your cellphone.
Characters move between locations instantly, crossing state lines and passing through walls as sets rise, fall and are wheeled away as if by magic. Knee Deep sticks to this stage conceit throughout the entire act, with everything being in service to the story. There are no fetch quests or pointless, time wasting puzzles that have always plagued contemporaries like Life is Strange or Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Prologue’s game is entirely about the story and the characters around you.
Strangely, it’s also about journalistic integrity and honesty. Each character has the opportunity to gather the facts they’ve been told and collate them into a news story of sorts. These stories not only color how each character’s employee feels about them, but it also affects the way other characters react to you in later interactions.
Early on, my Romana faced a cold shoulder or two for implying that Kern was washed up, and that Cypress Knee was the kind of place were dreams go to die. Maybe that’s all true, but there’s a fascinating amount of considerations in choosing the “stance” of your story. In Romana’s gameplay, you essentially select a pre-written piece by choosing a theme that includes the likes of “Edgy” or “Cautious.”
Edgy stories will please your editor, while cautious stories will please the locals. There’s a fine line, and it’s hard to tell how this will play out as Act 1 is simply setting up many of the story strands rather than following up on them. Future acts will tell us whether these choices truly matter at all.
Each character has a different role, personality, and way of reporting. Romana makes bite size, hipster headlines for the oh-so-trendy blog she works for. Bellet chooses how he wants to spin the story in his newspaper article for a local rag, and Gaddis essentially writes an expenses statement that comically changes on how you’ve framed the trip. As the game unfolds, you have multiple stories to cover, and there’s a miniature battle between integrity, trying not to offend the victims or locals, and trying to please your boss. A battle not unlike the one most of us experience in our day-to-day lives.
The focus on story is the game’s largest strength and occasionally one of its prime issues, too. Knee Deep is ostensibly all about story, and there is very little actual gameplay in the traditional sense. There are one or two mini-games that take away from the experience, feeling like something shoehorned in like any sort of puzzle in a Telltale game. The brisk pace of hopping between locations, characters, and conversations can often lead to slight confusion over who is who, and what role they play in the wider story. There are also a couple of story beats that are ruined by a brief struggle to recall who it is that is involved.
The game has an encyclopedia of sorts that allows you to view clues, facts, and character bios, and it alerts you when details are added to this, but the story is so gripping and propels you forward at such a pace that you rarely take the time to view it. Knee Deep flings you from location to location, and you never properly have control over a character to take a breather and stroll around. It gives it a wonderful, break-neck pace, making you truly feel like you’re caught up in a stage play, but it can be overwhelming when you’re trying to get your bearings and catch up on the facts you’ve found. It’s a style that suits the pace of the game, but one that can occasionally leave you lost.
The voice acting in Act 1 is decent, and it’s strange to note that the original release didn’t include voice acting at all. It has been retroactively added into Act 1 for the release of the upcoming Act 2: Festival, coming November 3rd, 2015. Improved character animations and facial expression have also been added, adding a new level of depth to the experience.
It’s refreshing to see a developer so ready to respond to negative and positive feedback alike and implement changes that improve subsequent episodes for the best. It’s also telling that it’s a better approach than developing an episodic series wholesale and then releasing them part by part. If all three acts were done and dusted and Prologue Games had no desire to return to them, the whole series would suffer as a result. Without voice acting, the maiden episode was still great, but the addition has added an extra level of polish and narrative style, even if it can feel somewhat wooden at times. The lines are always fantastic, however, which is better than can be said for other titles in the genre.
The location of Cypress Knee is so well realized that while you’re aware of the stage trappings, you’d swear you can feel the oppressive heat, and smell the festering stench of the swamp as you engage with its motley crew of characters. Most of them are stereotypes at first glance that belie surprising depth.
Teague seems to start off as a typical, Generation Y’er, aloof and edgy, but as the episode progresses, it’s revealed that there might be a very good reason for her closed off and disinterested facade, and for such a short title – just under two hours running time – we subtly cover a great deal of character history. Teague’s “Give a strange response” dialogue option is also frequently hilarious and one of my favorite things about the game, allowing you to respond to other characters with quips and gibberish that often capture exactly how you feel, even though you didn’t know it yet.
At its denouement, Knee Deep Act 1: Wonderland somewhat jumps the shark in a scene that is expertly crafted, jumping between interlinking characters to allow them to finish each other’s sentences. The last five minutes or so feel like a series of twists, turns, and violence that are at odds with the sleepy pace at the start of the act. It’s obviously a ploy to hook you in, to make you desperate to see what happens next – and heck, it works, even if it does feel cheap. As the curtain falls on the end of Act 1, I’m incredibly excited to see where Act 2 will take us.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which was provided to us.
Knee Depp is a creative indie with stellar story, pulpy dialogue and serviceable voice acting.
Knee Deep Act 1: Wonderland Review