Shepard a delivery man through a summer night of magic and bluegrass.
PC Release: January 7, 2013
By Ian Coppock
I don’t have a lot of experience with magical realism, nor keeping my attention span rooted to the pages of a book for more than an hour or so at a time. Kentucky Route Zero gets two birds stoned at once by providing a fresh, atmospheric video game experience within that body of fiction, while also paying my laziness its due. Laziness and inexperience notwithstanding, Kentucky Route Zero is a bizarre little game that is ironically very akin to a book, both in terms of its depth and its ability to draw you in.
Kentucky Route Zero is an episodic adventure game that comes to us from Cardboard Computer, a pair of indie developers fixated upon narrative and folk songs. The game puts you in the boots of Conway, an old truck driver running his last delivery for a local antique shop.
But, Conway soon finds that the address he’s after doesn’t show up on any map. His quest to find it, and the characters he meets along the way, are the backbone of KRZ‘s narrative. His journey begins at sunset, on an old Kentucky highway.
Kentucky Route Zero is played from a variety of third-person camera shots, ranging from isometric to side-scroller, and players move about the world using a point-and-click interface. You’ll spend most of the game in charge of Conway, but as his strange little odyssey picks up more people, you’ll sometimes switch to these other characters.
Players interact with the world in classic adventure format: click on the object, read the text, and make your choices. Like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Kentucky Route Zero goes light on the puzzles in favor of more story and atmosphere.
It doesn’t take long for the elements of magical realism to kick into the story. Conway is told that the only way to get to his destination is via Kentucky Route Zero, a state highway he logically assumes is above ground. Turns out that the Zero is an underground highway threading beneath Kentucky, and that it’s traversed by all manner of strange people and creatures.
The interesting thing about this game is that the supernatural features are treated as just another mundane part of the world, which I guess is what the entire term magical realism is supposed to denote. One second I was driving along a darkened highway, and the next a giant eagle was carrying me to a distant forest. The binding of these elements into a realistic story made the game more surreal.
As the story progresses, we learn a little more about each of our summer night heroes. The game spares plenty of time for feeding us tidbits of the character’s backstories. Conway’s is something of a tragedy, having arisen from promising beginnings only to be derailed. The other characters who join you, including a stubborn mechanic, a genius schoolboy, and a pair of wandering folk musicians have similar tales unearthed with progressing further down the Zero.
Kentucky Route Zero is the first game I’ve played in a while that has very high-quality writing. The prose excels at evoking the feelings, sights and sounds that the game’s visuals do not give us. This minimalist approach is highly organic, and gives players more control over what the ultimate story looks like. Plenty of focus is given to the narrative, but just as crucial to me was the time spent writing the descriptions of each scene, the sights and sounds of nighttime Kentucky. It’s quite immersive.
The thing I liked most about Kentucky Route Zero is that the story contains overtones of a realistic situation. True, some situations are a bit absurd and giant eagles named Julian, to our knowledge, don’t actually exist, but the writing contains the tension and the weariness behind an old man’s desire to finish this last job. Attention paid to the subtleties of that realistic writing makes the unrealistic parts of the story more believable.
The game also gets creative with its perspectives. As I said before, you spend most of your time behind the wheels of Conway and his delivery truck, but you’ll also take control of the other characters. In one scenario, you’ll sit in with a bunch of guys watching footage of Conway through a security camera, and get that segment of the story through their eyes.
Kentucky Route Zero has an origami art style. The world looks like it was built from paper. Character faces are left blank, but their profiles provide enough details for you to imagine the rest.
The game is filled with colors both bright and bleak, creating lots of contrast, and the animation of the characters and world is also silky smooth. Most scenes comprise the various characters exploring an area against a series of spectacular backdrops.
KRZ features a selection of old-school bluegrass tunes and some more subtle movements for the game’s general backgrounds. To reinforce the sensation of mysticism and storytelling, bluegrass musicians are often seen and heard playing their tunes in the background, while you run around exploring the world.
I wasn’t familiar nor partial to bluegrass before, but I’ve since looked up and enjoyed a number of tunes featured in the game. There was one particularly gorgeous tune sung by one of the characters that makes for one of the game’s emotional highlights.
I do have a few complaints that Cardboard Computer need to address immediately. For one thing, the game has more than a few sound bugs. I’d be driving along the Zero only to hear the music suddenly cut out. The sound dipped in and out during regular gameplay as well. Big no-no. Get those bugs squashed ASAP.
Additionally, the few puzzles you do encounter have an unfortunate tendency to be tedious. I spent half an hour sifting through files on a supercomputer with not the foggiest notion of how to proceed. Cardboard Computer excels at narrative, but they need to make KRZ’s puzzles a little more intuitive.
The other caveat I will leave you with is that the game isn’t finished yet. I don’t have a problem forking over $25 for this game, and neither should you, but Kentucky Route Zero started releasing in January of 2013 and is only on episode three.
At this rate, Cardboard Computer will hopefully have the fourth and fifth installments out soon, but they’re taking their sweet time. I won’t judge you if you want to wait for the game to be finished, but it’s by no means un-enjoyable three episodes in.
I would recommend that you get this game, especially if you’re looking for a story-rich and atmospheric experience that will draw you in like a good book. The experience of playing this game is strikingly similar to staying up all night with a favorite novel, and it’s for that reason that, despite being not finished yet, I’ll give Kentucky Route Zero the benefit of the doubt and recommend it. One you put in your 25 bucks, you’re set for all five episodes. Just prepare to be patient.
You can buy Kentucky Route Zero here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.