One of the strangest storytelling adventures of the generation is finally complete and available on consoles, and it was well worth the wait.
Kentucky Route Zero has been in the works for the better part of a decade. We first reviewed the Kickstarter-funded PC release of Act I way back in 2013, with Act II appearing the same year but Act III not until 2014, and Act IV two years after that. But now Act V has finally been released for the PC, with the TV Edition bringing all five parts, and their wonderfully offbeat interludes, to consoles.
Lengthy gestation aside, Kentucky Route Zero remains wonderfully inscrutable. Mechanically it’s most frequently a point ‘n’ click adventure interspersed with moments of map exploration, and others where it becomes a text adventure. But at heart it’s a game that spins together themes not normally found in video games: debt slavery, addiction, and horses – to name three.
For most of the game its central character is Conway, a dispatch driver for an antiques shop, attempting to make his final delivery. The shop’s closing down, and he’s not sure what he’s going to do next, but before entertaining those considerations he has to make one last drop. The problem is that the address he’s been given exists only in the realm of the strange and unsettling Route Zero, a highway that runs through Kentucky in a purely metaphysical way. Confused? You will be.
Much of the game is played out in a series of 2D scenes that mix light exploration with conversation. As you wander, you click on eye-shaped icons to get a fuller description, and on names to chat to other characters. However, as well as making dialogue choices for Conway, you soon start to make choices for other characters, and not just dialogue. You’ll also be making major decisions about their motivations and backstories, effectively co-creating the plot and protagonists with the developers.
It’s a magical and mysterious process where seemingly innocuous interactions are imbued with a powerful sense of consequence, as though even the most trivial decision might have unknown ramifications. It’s a process that feels almost completely unique, and while there is no voice-acting, the quality of the writing is superb, evoking the everyman realism of great American playwright Tennessee Williams. It goes perfectly with the musical accompaniment of haunting synth tunes and bluegrass played on guitar and banjo.
You’ll also be spending time travelling up and down Route Zero itself, an undertaking that requires counter-intuitive directions, the road’s howling cacophony and vector graphics cave-like appearance adding to the surrealism of the roadside landmarks you pass, and your circuitous method of getting from A to B. But the bizarreness extends into the conventional parts of Kentucky, with prominent features around real-world Highway 65 including a tree that’s always on fire; an artificial limb factory; and two shoeless, shirtless men pushing a light aircraft along the darkened freeway.
Another oddity is the pacing, which remains deliberately ponderous throughout. Conway spends a lot of the game stooped and injured, limping around each scene with no button to trigger a run. It’s a game that rewards a measured approach, even sometimes just lingering, looking and listening. It helps you soak up the beautiful visuals, and ethereal soundtrack, even when there’s no further plot exposition in a scene.
If all that sounds a bit boring, it’s not. There is a scene in Act III where you’re playing as characters that are in turn playing a text adventure together on an ancient, mould-infested computer. It’s probably the low point of Kentucky Route Zero in terms of entertainment value, but very much in keeping with its uncompromising spirit. This is a game that needs to be enjoyed on its own terms rather than like a conventional role-playing game or adventure.
There are multiple scenes that will stay with you long after you’ve turned off your console, from the Zero’s surreal Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, where an extended family of grizzly bears lives on one of its floors, above the filing clerks and below its messy archives, to the many peculiar characters you meet. Disarmingly, they speak and behave as though everything around them is completely normal, even when it’s anything but.
The freshly released Act V, although relatively short compared with the preceding four, sees a surprising return to daylight after an entire game played during the hours of darkness. It also offers a resolution, and one that’s just as oblique yet oddly down-to-Earth as the rest of the game. After so many years spent in its company, waiting for new episodes, it’s hard to let go, but it’s quite the send-off.
The overall effect is a masterpiece of dreamlike storytelling that makes you part of its narrative in a way that would be impossible in other media. In many ways it may be wholly unconventional as a game, but it couldn’t exist in any other form. Beautiful, frequently poetic, and wholeheartedly strange, its interactions and story are unlike anything else you will experience.
Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition review summary
In Short: An arrestingly surreal triumph that blends point ‘n’ click and text adventures with a unique style of storytelling and gameplay that was well worth the extremely long wait.
Pros: Completely unique in its storytelling and gameplay approach. Engagingly realistic characters, and a memorable backdrop of late 20th century Kentucky meets Twin Peaks.
Cons: There are moments when single-minded devotion to its setting undermines the entertainment, and those who like their games easily definable may find this a little too elliptical.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Developer: Cardboard Computer
Release Date: 28th January 2020
Age Rating: 12
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