Kentucky Route Zero is an episodic point-and-click adventure game developed by two-man indie studio Cardboard Computer. The game centres on Conway who seeks to deliver a package to Dogwood Drive which, from what he’s been told, lies along the ever elusive route Zero.
The game plays like a classic point-and-click adventure that has the player clicking on interactive objects in the environment which are not always blatantly present. After the first scene, the player gets access to a minimalist road map where Conway’s truck and be driven practically anywhere. Despite the large scale of the map, encounters with other people are seldom and short-lived. Kentucky feels like a ghost-town full of otherworldly beings and surreal events.
Point-and-click games will always be plot and atmosphere-heavy. Kentucky Route Zero is all about narrative and sucking in the ambience. The player has some freedom to choose what to say but it is unclear to what extent it will affect the events later in the game. For now, it seems like the different dialogue options are merely there to satisfy curiosities generated by the game’s inherently mysterious and eerie impression. Despite the lack of effect your choices have, it still leaves for some pretty interesting, albeit vague, conversations.
The narrative is presented in a very dreamlike fashion. Conway often speaks to his dog whom the player gets to name in the beginning. The dog, which we’ll call Blue because that’s what I named her in my playthrough, is Conway’s straw-hat-wearing, withered pet whom he speaks with to reflect on current events. Much like but not exactly his conversations with people, the dialogues are so vague that it feels like you’re only ever hearing half a conversation. Conway’s past is often alluded to without any prior knowledge to his background. While this does make the plot seem confusing, it is quite safe to say that things will most probably be cleared up more when Cardboard Computer releases the next few acts.
At some point during the first act, the narrative is split into two with Conway and a woman he meets in a mine beneath Kentucky, Shannon. I haven’t encountered a split narrative in a text-based adventure game like this before. Though the conversations actually become two-sided, you are still essentially controlling two halves of a single exchange.
The visuals are very minimalist and quite stunning to say the least. The environment is presented in 2D with 3D character and structure models. The low contrast and foggy ambience plays hand-in-hand with the game’s bleak and ghostly atmosphere. I especially liked how the open-world map looks like. Conway’s truck is represented by a moving wheel and all the roads are just thin bright white lines marked with route numbers and other points of interest.
The winning factor in Kentucky Route Zero is the sound effects. Cardboard Computer must have one hell of a foley room or perhaps just a highly talented sound technician to produce overwhelmingly realistic sound effects. In a heavily atmospheric game, sound effects play a huge role especially if the game is to be minimalistic and dark. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is nothing special. It has all the right characteristics to qualify for an atmospheric game but it lacks any distinguishing or memorable themes.
I’m quite disappointed by the fact that Kentucky Route Zero has already received quite plenty of positive reviews considering only one act is available. It isn’t quite fair to rate this game yet as my experience is, like the halves of all those conversations, yet to be completely fulfilled. With an incredibly vague first act, I expected more of a hook; something that will leave me impatiently waiting for the next fix. What I got, however, was a confusing yet mystery-filled experience that only somewhat sparked my curiosity. Due to this, this review is but a review for the first act, not for the game as a whole.
On the other hand, plenty should be expected from Kentucky Route Zero, especially since Act I is cut so short and saturated with obscurity. It took me only about 20 or so minutes to finish it. Though the plot and gameplay may seem a bit thin as of now, I’m quite hopeful that Cardboard Computer will deliver a more immersive and lucid experience in the next act.