Our first impression of Kentucky Route Zero was hardly the most impactful we've come across. A lot of cryptic dialogue mixed with simple game mechanics, dialogue sequences with a lack of consequence, and somewhat spooky visual phenomena came together to make the game's first act feel like there were only pretentious storylines ahead in this episodic adventure. This first impression, however, had a lot to do with our initial assumptions.
You see, before we got the review code in the mail, we had missed the release of this seven-year-long production, and even though the game is of the point-and-click variety, that is not really how we'd actually describe Kentucky Route Zero. It shares aspects with the genre's DNA, sure, but what Cardboard Computer has created is a game that's deeply fascinating and gripping despite its cryptic nature.
Conway is the game's main protagonist. He's a man who's left his youth behind him, now working as a driver for an antiquity boutique. In his truck, he carries his last delivery, which he's adamant about delivering before he's forced to quit his job due to the company's impending bankruptcy. The initial goal: find 5 Dogwood Drive, an address no one seems to know how to get to. Some, however, inform Conway that Route Zero on the highway is the path to take.
What sets Kentucky Route Zero apart from its contemporaries is the choices one makes throughout. From the very first moment, the player is given free rein to shape his or her experience. On the journey, the protagonist has an old dog at his side. The hound doesn't move around like it used to, but he wears a dapper straw hat, and the player gets to choose the dog's backstory as the adventure begins. In fact, there are plenty of aspects that the player gets to choose from the get-go. That said, however, none of the choices have substantial consequences tied to them. The path is rather linear and instead of choosing your own adventure, you'll shape the perspectives of a preset character.
Some of the sequences that set the tone for the adventure to come during were also the game's biggest weaknesses, simply because of the fact that the dialogue felt as though it was completely set, despite making it seem as though one could alter things more significantly. The game also lacks actual puzzles, so if you're looking for a point & click adventure á la Monkey Island, we recommend you look elsewhere. It took us quite a while to start to feel immersed in this rather obscure adventure and the simplistic design with its straight lines and muted colours didn't exactly lure us in. This slowly shifted, however, when we got further into the game and the characters we had got to know started to evolve, both as one and as a group.
Kentucky Route Zero has a surreal, absurd tone to it. For example, at one point we ventured through an office building that had a floor solely inhabited by bears and another time we met up with an eagle big enough to pick up and move entire buildings. It's filled to the brim with abstractions and symbolism, but it's the painfully realistic aspects that hit the hardest. Every character has a story and every character has a sin to bear. This is one of the heavier themes and it affects the atmosphere of the game immensely.
There were so many moments that compelled us to stop and think about the situation the characters were in, and we were drawn in via the honest and well-written dialogue. Yet Kentucky Route Zero never shies away from the experimental and that helps to keep things feeling fresh. Even though the path may be linear, the emotional choices made throughout the game do have the power to make an impact. Few games portray relationships and philosophies in such a personal way, and Conway's relationship with Shannon was particularly memorable.
Despite the fact that the game treads on the line of magnificent storytelling, we can't call it perfect. The introductory hours of the game don't feel as ambitious as its later counterparts and this has to do with the slow, episodic nature of the game, but also with the fact that dialogue sequences can feel a bit heavy to read through at times. Towards the end, it also got hard to keep track of all of the names of the characters and the places they all held in the story, this despite the fact that we played it all relatively close together and the abstract nature of the narrative. What's more, some sequences killed the pacing and made it difficult to get back on track.
We were, however, still very impressed with Kentucky Route Zero by the time that the credits had rolled. It's a game that doesn't pull its punches when it comes to theme and subject matter, and some of the scenes that we played through were masterfully written. Even the understated visuals are phenomenal and help to maintain the thought-provoking and intriguing atmosphere. Sure, some parts of the game could have been edited a bit in order to reach their full potential, but as a whole, Kentucky Route Zero is a unique game that had the ambition to grow and grow with each act, and we're glad that we got to experience it.