Review In Short

Ben says: "Kentucky Route Zero is a weird experience-led game that I think I enjoyed whilst definitely enjoying a Scotch or three. I'll revisit it when the fifth and final chapter is (finally) released in 2018."

Kentucky Route Zero is a tricky game to explain and falls right into the “experience” trap I mentioned in my review of ABZÛ last week. The game is described by the developers as:

…a magical realist adventure game about a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky, and the mysterious folks who travel it. Gameplay is inspired by point-and-click adventure games (like the classic Monkey Island or King’s Quest series, or more recently Telltale’s Walking Dead series), but focused on characterization, atmosphere and storytelling rather than clever puzzles or challenges of skill.

I would compare it more to something akin to a “Choose Your Own Adventure” gamebook with the exception that your choices don’t affect the outcome. You are essentially given black and white characters that you’ll add some colour to via the dialogue choices you select. In many ways, you imprint yourself upon them in a stronger way than something like a Bioware game as there are no obvious good or bad choices; everything is just additional shading to the characters where you are deciding details of their story rather than changing their plot.

In essence, there is no game as there are no puzzles or non-linear exploration. Instead, it is a piece of artwork to experience and enjoy.

And what a piece of artwork it is! The screenshots on this page do no justice to the beautiful visuals and the even more impressive animation. As you move, the scenery unfolds from the darkness with some truly masterful parallax effects and lighting whilst the occasional background music and sound effects add further depth. In my review for ABZÛ I mentioned “truly perfect art direction” and that is a phrase which can certainly be applied to Kentucky Route Zero.

The game is separated into five Acts of which four have been released so far (two in 2013, one in 2014, and the latest in 2016 – Act V is coming “when it’s ready”). Acts are not charged for separately, however, with the entire game coming as one bundle. I don’t want to spoil the story or go into too much depth about the various characters but I will take a brief stroll through each Act as I’ve experienced it. I played each Act on a different evening, usually with a glass of whisky; they each last around an hour with Act III being slightly longer.

Act I is really about world building and introducing you to the core plot of the game which is to get Conway, an antique shop delivery man, to make his delivery. You’ll get to choose the name of the dog that accompanies you and this is probably the only decision that has weight in the game as it’ll progress through each episode (whereas other decisions just add detail to characters and don’t necessarily follow through to each episode; I don’t think I’ve had any previous decision referenced later on but it would be hard to tell without doing multiple playthroughs).

For much of the Act, you play as Conway but eventually you’ll meet Shannon Márquez and switch to having her be the dialogue you choose. This change occurs frequently thoughout the game and adds to the storybook feeling of seeing events from other characters perspectives between scenes.

There are many beautiful pieces of scenery in Act I with the mine shaft being a personal favourite. You are also introduced to the strangeness of The Zero (the road you are ostensibly trying to discover and travel down) and some of the peculiar characters you’ll meet along the way.

Act II begins with a prelude in which you get to see the expressionless characters a little closer up before resuming the point and click control method with Conway and Shannon. Fairly early on it is clear that there is a bit more comedy here than in the first Act. A memorable moment is (seeing amongst a list of fairly boring floors) an entry for ‘Bears’ on the elevator selection panel; even if you don’t choose to go to that floor you’ll see them – an accounting office full of black bears – as you pass by to a higher floor.

At this point I should make mention of the travel mechanic that is often used between scenes; you’ll sometimes be asked to choose your next location (usually after being given specific directions) by interacting with a black screen that has white line art either in the form of a map or something a bit weirder. These transitions are no less strange than anything else in the game and you’ll often have directions such as “pass by the bureau and then go backwards” at which point a building that wasn’t there previously will appear; this is probably the most puzzle-like element of the game which otherwise is completely unlike any other point and click game you may have played.

The best way I can describe the rest of Act II (which gets random pretty quickly \*cough\* giant eagle \*cough\*) is to simply quote what I had written in my notes at the point I finished it:

“I end up thinking this might be thought provoking. It is much like INSIDE. I’m happy for the experience without fully understanding it.”

Act III is where things started to fall apart for me. My first note is simply “I’m confused” and my last one is “I’m calling it. I have no clue. This is too artsy for me”.

The issue for me is that Act III isn’t moments of clarity with a few odd bits thrown in; rather it is a never-ending series of peculiar vignettes. There are a lot more scenes than the first two Acts and this adds to a nearly 50% increase in length with it taking around 90 minutes compared to 60 minutes for the others. Had it been a bit tighter, it may have been more enjoyable for me but instead I was rushing a little towards the end as I just wanted to finish it. That said, the ending is incredibly good and made me want to get to Act IV; it also feels like the story has advanced and that there is something bigger and darker to this world…

The one thing I kept thinking whilst working my way through Act III was that it was starting to feel like the TV show Lost; the opening acts are reminiscent of the first few series where you are drawn in and intrigued by what is happening but then it quickly descends into oddness for the sake of it. My hope was that Act IV would bring a bit more clarity whereas Lost just went off the deep end and didn’t come back.

Act IV quickly charmed me with its quirky beginning and some of the beautiful transitions that had similarly won me over in earlier Acts (moving from the interior to the exterior of the boat is a wonderful piece of animation). Your group of characters is now fairly large and you’ve moved from travelling by road to travelling by river which lends itself better to the flotsam and jetsam feeling that is evoked by the people you meet on your journey. One of the characters acts as a narrator of your journey and it is through their dialogue choices that you decide where to stop off rather than by clicking locations on a map; this also means there is slightly more branching to the story as I imagine you see different places depending on your choices which doesn’t appear to happen earlier in the game.

I found each stop along the river to be charming be it mushroom picking on an island next to a boat full of cats, sailing a dinghy through a bat sanctuary, or collecting tips for a keyboard player at a tiki bar on the beach. The characters seem to have rounded out nicely by this point (with several pieces of amusing dialogue) and every scene showcases perfection in art direction. There are also twists and turns in the story without veering into the plain weird which was an issue earlier.

When the Act finishes I’m left wanting more although I’ll have to wait as Act V has no release date. I sincerely hope that it will have a satisfying ending as there are many questions at this point, although part of the charm of Kentucky Route Zero is the mystery it paints. I wouldn’t want everything to be answered but I also would hate for it to be written off as a hallucination or dream of some kind.

In the end, I’m left with mixed feelings about Kentucky Route Zero; On the one hand, it is an incredible experience filled with memorable characters and some of the most beautiful 2D artwork I’ve seen in a game; on the other, it is a very artsy experience sometimes to its detriment. The story meanders like a lazy river and whilst you will always find something interesting, it can be hard to hold your attention when you are unsure as to what is happening. I found great pleasure in reading through the Wikipedia page after my runthrough in order to uncover a little bit more of the detail I’d somehow managed to miss.

This is just my opinion though and your mileage may vary; indeed, the part I found lacking the most (Act III) has the highest rating of the four on Metacritic so what do I know?

Regardless, if you want something different to enjoy, you can do a lot worse than pouring yourself a whisky and settling in for an hour or two on The Zero. You may well get confused, but the setting and characters will leave you remembering the experience for a long time to come.