Developer: Cardboard Computer
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Genre: Point-and-click adventure
Rating: T (Teen)
Originally released in an episodic format on PC back in 2013, the point-and-click adventure game KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO quickly picked up a cult following from indie game fans. Now it has recently made its way to all major current-gen consoles, and been consolidated into a single-purchase game on both console and PC in the process. With this older title back in the spotlight, now is an excellent time to see what all the hype is about.
Language: “D*mn,” along with various forms of the word “sh*t,” appear from time to time.
Sexual Content: Subtle sexual references are sprinkled sparsely throughout the game; one character talks about steamy romance novels, and a female character makes a suggestive statement implying an openness to the idea of a lesbian relationship.
Drugs: A character is given an anesthetic drug and dozes off. A reference is made to selling painkillers.
Spiritual Themes: A couple of characters visit a chapel, and one can listen to a recorded sermon. A couple of old spirituals are sung at specific points in the game.
KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO centers around an old man named Conway as he makes a delivery of antique furniture to 5 Dogwood Drive. The thing is, he cannot find this residence on his map. He soon discovers that it can only be accessed from Route Zero, a mystical highway located within caverns underneath Kentucky. It, too, cannot be found on his map, so he must find a way onto it through unconventional methods. Along the way, Conway meets an eclectic cast of characters, each with their own livelihoods and their own reasons to travel along the Zero as well.
As mentioned above, the game is a point-and-click adventure title; as such, gameplay consists of clicking the cursor on spots in the environment to move your character, make dialogue choices, and investigate objects. While in your truck, you view the world top-down as though looking at a map, and click to navigate along the depicted roads…that is, unless you’re on the Zero. The Zero is a loop, but every time you change directions while traveling on it, the environment changes. It’s easy to get lost, and the only reliable way to find places there is to follow specific directions that other characters give you, such as “drive clockwise to the Cathode Ray Tube, then travel counterclockwise until you reach your destination.” Interestingly, you actually don’t spend that much time on the titular Zero, as it’s only important in the first half of the game; most of your time is spent either on foot, or traversing the game world through other means that I will not spoil here.
KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO takes a very minimalist, yet effective, approach to visual design. Character models, while low-poly and lacking facial features, create distinction from one another via their memorable attire and hairstyles. The environments feature little detail, but make excellent use of focused lighting, highlighting objects in the foreground and drawing your eye to exactly what you should be looking at. The game’s soundtrack takes a similarly subdued approach, hanging in the background of the experience and providing subtle ambiance in order to accentuate the game’s surreal environment. Of course, this also serves to make the select lyrical tunes stand out, particularly the haunting melodies of the robotic band Junebug.
Where the game’s audio and visuals hang back on details, its text fills in the gaps. Almost all of the dialogue and item descriptions are presented in the form of written text, encouraging you to use your imagination to supplement what you see and hear. It’s an approach that immerses you in a way that few other games attempt, and it’s executed well here.
The true focus of the game lies not in its presentation nor its gameplay, however, but in its storytelling, and it is here that the game both impresses and confounds. Structurally, KRZ is divided into five acts, with loosely connected interludes following each one. The game’s overall pace is very relaxed; major plot points are rarely treated with any sense of urgency, and extended segments of travel and idle discussion separate the more significant developments. I found myself getting impatient at times, hoping that the story would advance more quickly, but I realized that the focus of this game’s narrative is much different than those of most other games I have played. Where other games center around the main plot, KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO revolves around its characters and its world-building.
KRZ’s characters are an interesting bunch; each member of the cast comes into the story with distinct personalities, and each gets an opportunity to shine, from the laid-back Conway, to the technically-minded Shannon, to the energetic youngster Ezra. The game drip-feeds their respective backstories over the course of the journey, some of which can be altered depending on which dialogue options you choose. Many of them also take turns providing comedic relief through quirky, off-beat humor, which helps break up the game’s eerie and at times unsettling vibe. All of the game’s characters, even the weirdest ones, feel grounded and realistic.
The game’s world-building showcases the ability of the developers at Cardboard Computers to combine imaginative, supernatural elements with real-world complexities. Countless curiosities cross your path as you explore the underground caverns: a flower salesman floating down a river with his wares in tow; an office that is somehow both indoors and outdoors at the same time; a pair of adjacent houses, once the homes of feuding sisters, now left abandoned and overgrown by untended gardens. All of these bizarre yet strangely believable places bear a long history and are inhabited by people just living their day-to-day lives. The people of the caverns form a community of their own, not unlike a small Kentucky town one might find on the surface: isolated and close-knit, but not completely disconnected from the wider world.
While the characters and surrounding world draw me in, the main plot leaves me scratching my head. Beyond the aforementioned slow pacing, the story does not present any overarching idea. Many different concepts are brought up—alcoholism, obligations and debts, a search for family, finding your place in the world, the negative effects of corporate interests on the lives of individuals and communities—but none of them are examined in any depth, and no single one stands out as more significant than the others. The game’s ending falls flat because of its failure to tie the story’s loose threads into a cohesive whole. A part of me thinks that I must have missed some important detail that brings everything together, but the game’s languid pace and unfocused storytelling suggest otherwise. Perhaps all that KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO intends to portray are the everyday lives of small-town Americans, embellished and retold in a supernatural context; even that, however, is not clearly marked as the intended takeaway.
KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO leaves me charmed, intrigued, reflective, frustrated, and disappointed all at the same time. The game has plenty going for it; thanks to its imaginative world, likeable characters, clever visuals, and eerie soundtrack, I spent much of my time soaking in all the creativity on display. But I also can’t help but feel that it’s missing a unifying element to bring all of its disparate pieces together, something that would elevate the experience as a whole and make it more than just the sum of its parts. Without it, KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO feels aimless, adrift in a sea of good ideas but without a clear destination. Thankfully, the journey itself is still worth the price of admission.
The Bottom Line
KENTUCKY ROUTE ZERO tells fascinating tales about its world and the people who inhabit it, but fails to connect its many threads into a cohesive whole.