You know how there’s always a few games or a series you missed when it came out and just never got around to playing? One of them for me was Kentucky Route Zero as ostensibly it’s right up my wheelhouse: indie, story heavy adventure with a bent for the experimental. Heck I even had a friend of mine recommend it to me when it first came out but still I just let it slip by. Then as the years rolled on I kept hearing about it, learning that it was an episodic adventure that’d be released over the course of many years. So I resolved myself to play it end to end when it finally finished and it just so happened that the final episode was released this year. Imagine my surprise too when I found out that I already owned it, picking it up over 4 years ago. What’s followed over the last week has been an incredible journey, witnessing nearly a decade of work and experimentation unfold before me.
If I’m honest though, I’m glad I waited.
Conway, a truck driver, works as a delivery man for an antique shop owned by a woman named Lysette. Being hired to make a delivery to 5 Dogwood Drive, Conway travels the roads around Interstate 65 in Kentucky to locate the address, accompanied by his dog, Blue. After searching around, Conway elaborates that he is lost and stops off by a gas station, Equus Oils. It’s here where your surreal journey into this slice of the rust belt begins as you try to track down the elusive address which apparently can only be found by taking the road that can’t be mapped, the Zero.
So much of the recent indie fare I’ve played has utilised similar low poly stylins and if I’m completely honest I had a hard time seeing where they would’ve drawn the inspiration from. Given that Kentucky Route Zero is nigh on a decade old (and extremely popular in the indie/experimental game scene) I feel somewhat confident in saying it’s likely that it is the one who popularised this art style. There are some trademarks that are unique to it though, things like the low poly foliage that appears to be 2D or the slow fade to black of the background as you dive deeper into a text block. Backing all this is some solid foley work and an absolutely stunning soundtrack, the highlight of which is each of the act’s bluegrass standards performed by one of the developer’s bands, the Bedquilt Ramblers.
Kentucky Route Zero fits firmly within the point-and-click adventure genre although most of the usual mechanics (like inventory management) aren’t present. Instead the game is more of a wandering adventure, inviting you to explore around, see what’s what, and carve out your own path through the game’s surprisingly large world. Whilst most of the traditional mechanics aren’t present there are numerous progression blocking puzzles that you’ll need to solve although, thankfully, they are all self contained. Each of the acts has its own…theme so to speak, constructed in such a way to change how you interact with it and, by extension, how you view the story. Played as they came out it certainly would’ve been quite the whirlwind of different styles but played through from start to finish the various elements actually blend together rather well.
The adventure game elements are pretty basic, verging on walking simulator territory given that there’s not a whole lot of puzzles to solve. However there’s exploration aplenty to be had, both in terms of actual exploration around the map (in the many forms that it takes) and through the various dialogue choices that the game presents to you. This does then beg the question of whether or not the exploration is worth it and the answer is: well it depends. At a nuts and bolts level most of the exploration you’ll undertake will build out the world first and, only if you’re lucky, give you a little more insight into the characters. However herein lies the rub for pretty much everything that goes on in Kentucky Route Zero: none of it really matters.
The game has an inordinate amount of dialogue choices for you to pick through however I’m 99% sure, bar for a few choice sections, your choices have basically no impact on how the story plays out. There are various dialogue options which are obviously in direct contrast to each other but often they’re backstory elements or other things which don’t really matter to the core narrative per se but, in a larger sense, are part of the who the characters are to you in the story. For instance the dog that accompanies you for much of the game could either be your loving pet which you confide in regularly or simply that mangy mutt you keep around for whatever reason. Does that change how the story plays out? Not in the slightest but it does change what you think about that character, how they interact with others and ultimately the kind of person you want them to be.
Digging more into the construction of the narrative it’s interesting to try and figure out which parts are allegorical and which parts are true to the world. Obviously quite a lot of the world built up in Kentucky Route Zero is surreal however the game bills itself as being “magical realist” which would then lead you to believe that much of what you’re seeing is 100% true to (this world’s) life. Much like the game’s namesake trying to figure this out is likely to lead you in circles which, I gather, is pretty much the point of the whole thing. I can’t say much more before I dive into spoiler territory but suffice to say the world built up in Kentucky Route Zero has a lot to pick through no matter which way you look at it.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
With the benefit of only just finished my full playthrough a couple days ago, completed mostly in single chapter per night stints, I went through a lot of different emotions over the course of the game. The initial chapter hooked me into the concept, giving me just enough to want to see where things led from there. The second, with its proper introduction and implementation of the Zero route, piqued my interest further. However Act 3 (and to a lesser extent, the last few sections of Act 4) began to drag somewhat, the game dwelling a little too long on some of the more esoteric narrative concepts that I simply didn’t find that interesting. However Act 5 brought everything back home, giving the game the emotional climax that I think many had been seeking but may not have appreciated the brevity in which it was delivered.
Though had I played this before it was completed I don’t think I would feel the same way I do now. Back in the day episodic content was all the rage to keep players coming back time after time, but it’s fallen out of fashion lately and for good reason. Many gamers, myself included, simply don’t come back around when the content is drip fed to us over a long period of time. Played all the way through Kentucky Route Zero feels like a masterpiece, an experience that’s been carefully crafted to elucidate a particular feeling. Played over the better part of a decade? I would’ve forgotten character’s names, the reasons they were there and all sorts of other things that made Kentucky Route Zero as enjoyable as it was. I know this opinion will run contrary to most who’ve enjoyed every morsel they’ve been able to savour but I know myself, and I’m glad I didn’t cave into it beforehand.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Kentucky Route Zero is an exceptional storytelling experiment in the medium of games. The craftsmanship is absolutely top notch and played as an entire experience it’s amazing to see their progress as developers over the over 10 year journey it took to bring this vision to life. It may be a little simplistic and slow for some but for those of us who relish the opportunity to play something truly different to the norm there’s not many other titles that can be thrown in the same basket as this one. If you are like me and have snoozed on Kentucky Route Zero for all these years then I’m glad to say that now is the time to get into it, you won’t regret it.
Kentucky Route Zero is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $35.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 7 hours play time and 54% of the achievements unlocked.