by Matt Porter
reviewed on PC
From the moment the first scene loads, and the camera pans down to reveal a lonely gas station with the backdrop of a sunset over rugged mountains, you cannot help but feel drawn into the world created in Kentucky Route Zero. The absolutely gorgeous art style and haunting use of light, sounds and music make for a dark, almost chilling atmosphere, and if you dig a little deeper, you can even find a game somewhere. It seems that the loose adventure game mechanics on show are merely a vessel for storytelling in this short first act of a five act series. Despite asking more questions than it answered, by the end I found myself itching to play the next act when it comes out later this year.
You take control of Conway, accompanied by an old dog which has seen better days. Conway is a delivery driver for an antique shop, and is on his way to his destination where he has to stop and ask directions. He is told that the only way to get there is by taking the eponymous Kentucky Route Zero, but he has to find it first. The path to find this mysterious road seems complex, and with each step the weirdness multiplies. Along the way you meet several characters, some of which seem to know more than they let on, and some of which are so vague that you are left wondering if they even exist.
Early on you receive a lamp, which acts as the only real gameplay mechanic. Within the first few minutes you use it to complete the first, and only, puzzle in the game. The rest of the interactions come from dialogue options, and from clicking to move your character around. It is not long until you find someone who accompanies you for the rest of Act I, and you are even given dialogue options for her for a brief moment when you first meet. This fact, combined with the way that the game is split up into acts and scenes, makes you wonder whether you are actually playing at all, or whether you are just witnessing a play of which you are the author, writing as it unfolds in front of you. The other use for the lamp is to shed light on, or indeed remove it from, the world around you. This has no real gameplay implications, other to provide some extra flavor to the scenes. Sometimes the darkness is more revealing than the light.
Open ended questions
Patience is a virtue while playing Kentucky Route Zero. The pacing is slow and deliberate, allowing you to breathe in every detail of the scenes that developer Cardboard Computer has lovingly created. Act I is merely an hour long, yet you have to backtrack several times throughout the playthrough. This does not feel like a chore though, especially when circumstances change and you get a different perspective of things. As an aside, what did feel like a chore was when the act ended, with a fade to black and a quit to desktop, causing me to play the final scene again just to make sure it was not a crash. That seems to be the way that the game operates though, leaving you with open ended questions. Since I finished the game, the final scene has been updated with an “End of Act 1” message, as Cardboard Computer had received too many emails complaining about a “mysterious crash”.
When you are not in an actual scene, you can explore the roads of this realization of Kentucky via a map. You are given directions to your next destination, but if you like you can go off course and explore some of the backroads. There are occasional landmarks which you can visit, some of which trigger a kind of cutscene, and some of which take the form of a kind of text adventure. These are all likely to fill in the backstory in some way, but right now they just add to the mystery.
Right now it is quite hard to give an actual score to Kentucky Route Zero. The game is short, so there is not actually a great deal to write about. The gameplay is next to non-existent and the characters are not fully fleshed out yet, but that is by design. The graphics ooze style, and the tentative use of sound and music throughout the game is excellent. The story, while lacking in strong details, intrigued me to the point that I did not mind the lack of actual game to be found. It is telling that I really hope that the rest of the series continues to grip me as much as Act I did.
Beautifully created graphics. Great use of sound and music. Intriguing plot.
Not much of a game as of yet. Short, even for an episodic adventure game.