Kentucky Route Zero is almost impossible to describe in words. More a work of interactive fiction than a proper game, players will control Conway (and occasionally, other characters, too) as he embarks on a not-so-epic quest for the eponymous Route Zero in order to make a delivery.
Well, there’s more to it than that, but saying anything more would be harmful to the game. See, Kentucky Route Zero takes the popular “choose your own adventure” method of storytelling and completely blows it out. The gulf in possibilities is so wide that it is possible for the game to take anywhere from 15 minutes to 2-and-a-half hours, with multiple variations in playtime in between.
The lone constant to every person’s experience with KRZ is that the game is uniformly gorgeous. Conway in particular is just interesting to look at, with his gangly arms and legs that seem to stretch on forever and his compacted torso. His gait is a mix between Shaggy from Scooby-Doo and what a “Stretch Armstrong” might look like were it ambulatory, and it exemplifies the unnatural, surrealist look that KRZ strives for. Conway’s dog (which has multiple names) is all sickly skin and bones which sag away from its frame like a poorly-hung curtain.
The perspective shifts and warps as the player explores the game’s variety of areas, deftly transitioning from outdoor to indoor environments in ways that much bigger games can’t typically manage. In one early highlight, a hill melts away into the foreground as a previously-unseen house emerges from the shadows to take center-stage. It all works together to create a consistent visual aesthetic reminiscent of a David Lynch play on Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.
The subtle sound design also adds to the atmosphere. The game primarily uses diegetic (ie sounds created by the in-game world) sounds to fill in the space usually provided by music, and the distinct quiet of the game only serves to further unnerve players. It’s not a scary game by any stretch, but there’s a constant feeling that everything is slightly off, like this is just a bad dream Conway might have had while asleep in a truck stop after having too much stale pie from the local diner. Or maybe he’s just on peyote. Either way, the contrast between the showy visual design and overtly-subtle sound design work together in unholy harmony.
This first act of KRZ is mostly used to set the stage for what will surely be a wild trip down the rabbit hole, so players may find the opening 90 minutes a bit underwhelming. Again, the game is subtle in how it offers information to the player, so it’s probably worth it to take multiple trips through the game in order to retain as much information as possible. Additionally, it’s worth it just to see how many different variations on the story are possible, as the game constantly gives players a chance to fill-in gaps in Conway’s backstory. The overall narrative presented in Act I is worth discussing, and those discussions will be illuminating for many players, even if the end-result of the story is the same for every player.
Developer Cardboard Computer grabs the player by the lapels and demands attention from the opening title card of the game and doesn’t let go until long after the game cooly shuts itself down at the end (an ending title card has since been added to avoid any Sopranos-finale-esque confusion). Its respectful and mature story is confident and self-assured from the beginning, and its commitment to being a piece of interactive fiction is only slightly diminished by an awkward puzzle at the very beginning of the game.
An essay can be written about each of KRZ‘s component parts, but really this review can be boiled down into one word.
A copy of Kentucky Route Zero for the PC was purchased by the reviewer for the purposes of this review.