Everything about Kentucky Route Zero really sounds like it should appeal to me. Like, really, every part. It's an episodic adventure game about a small town that is going through a particularly awful, and most likely fatal, patch of capitalism. I'll admit I was put off by the long wait time between episodes and found myself waiting for the full release rather than playing each one as they came up. Well, the full release is finally here and I sat down to give the game a shot. Did it appeal to me as much as I hoped it would?
At the start, you play as Conway, a truck driver looking to make his last delivery before the company he works for shuts down. The problem is that the delivery requires him to get to the mysterious highway known as Zero, a highway that can't be found on any map or reached by any normal means. That doesn't stop Conway, as he begins to seek out this mystery highway and make his final delivery. Along the way, he begins to pick up several other people looking to get to the Zero for their own reasons. This includes a TV repairwoman looking for her lost sister, a young boy with a giant eagle for a brother, and a pair of mining robots that became musicians.
Where We're Going, We Don't Need Roads
The cast of characters is certainly an interesting bunch. Everyone is going through some sort of life crisis and trying to make the best of it. Fleshing out their histories, I found it easy to get attached to these characters as I learned more about them. Yet, I wished they got a little more focus. By the end, I still had many questions about these people, and I would have loved to see them fleshed out a little better.
Instead, the story is less about the characters and more about the world they occupy. The unnamed town they move in and around clearly has all sorts of issues, most caused by neglect from a company that owns it. From its birth as a mining town, where the mining company only paid miners in company scrip and charged them for basics like AC or lights, to later running an electric company that would charge people for every little thing they could. Then, after screwing the town over on several occasions, the company just left it in a half-finished, ultimately wrecked, state, moving on to find a new place to support them.
None of this even touches on how strange the whole area in Kentucky is. From permanently burning trees, to a mysterious company that exists for the sole reason of reclaiming "lost" areas to turn into something else, everything about the Zero and the area around it is delightfully weird. At times it's also sinister. One of my favorite features of the world involves how debt physically transforms people into skeletons. There are several fantastic moments involving these "debt skeletons" and how they destroy both the person they're infecting and those around them.
Death to the Dollar
All of this sounds so good, and in fact, is even great at some points. Despite that, it never really clicked. I kept waiting for that moment where everything fits together and turns into the whole I wanted, but it never happens. Maybe it's because the focus on the town and the general populace over personal stories makes it a little harder to connect to.
It could be because other games, like Night in the Woods, have had stories with similar themes but executed so much better. Kentucky Route Zero feels like it fell victim to its own massive development cycle. It took seven years for the final episode to release. It took seven years for the final episode to release. In that time, other games exploring the same ideas and concepts have come and gone. It leaves Kentucky Route Zero feeling like one of the many roadside attractions you pass on its twisted routes: interesting as all hell to explore, but slightly run-down and out of place.
It doesn't help that the final episode leaves the whole thing off on an unsatisfactory note. I really don't want to spoil it, but the game doesn't end so much as just sort of stops. It feels like there's more story to be told, but Kentucky Route Zero doesn't want to tell it. I'd hate to have gotten so invested in the fourth episode and waited 3 years for such a letdown ending.
You may have noticed I haven't talked much about the gameplay yet, and that's because there's very little to Kentucky Route Zero other than telling your character to walk around and making dialogue choices. These choices often affect both the here and now and major events in the past. An early choice allows you to pick both details of Conway's dog, and if it's even his dog in the first place or if he just found them right there. It's your usual visual novel stuff, and the choices will ultimately change several events later on.
For the first three episodes, you have to drive from one location to the next. Often, you're given vague instructions about where you need to go. Things like "turn right when you see the petting zoo" or "do a U-turn when the radio cuts out." It's a light bit of puzzle-solving and exploration to help break up the constant talking and decision making. I really came to love these segments and found them to be one of the more comforting breaks. Sadly, story reasons eventually keep you from these pleasent distractions.
Between each episode, there's also an interlude which is usually anywhere between 30-60 minutes long. The interludes are a little more experimental than the actual episodes, trying out a few different ideas while telling one-shot stories that usually tie into a future episode. One has you watching a play from a first-person view, getting to watch the scenes play out, reading critical reviews, and seeing which sound effects would be used with no context to them. Another has you sitting at a telephone, dialing numbers for a weird tourism helpline. These can be cute, though a few run a little longer than really necessary. Still, I appreciated that they were here.
At no point did I feel like Kentucky Route Zero wasn't putting everything into its presentation. The game is quite beautiful to look at, with several fantastic landscapes that make great use of color and shadow. There's equal work put into its soundtrack, and several episodes end with fantastic little songs that fit the tone so well. Everything really hits its peak almost exactly halfway through the game, with the musical robot duo putting on a performance that is equal parts sad and beautiful. It's probably the highlight for me, taking every element and blending it perfectly.
Kentucky Route Zero Review | Final Thoughts
I just wish Kentucky Route Zero hit that high more. I'm not saying the game is bad, far from it. It just didn't quite hit me in the ways I really wanted it to. I tried so hard to love this game, but in the end, I only really liked it at best. Still, I highly recommend others give it a go despite that. It's clear many are pulling something even better out of this fantastical world, and likely many will for some time to come.
TechRaptor reviewed Kentucky Route Zero on PC via Steam using a copy purchased by the reviewer. The game is also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
- Fantastic Setting
- Hates Captalism
- Lovely Graphics and Audio
- Interesting Experimental Interludes
- Characters Don't Feel Fleshed Out Enough
- Story Just Sort of Stops
- Drops Best Gameplay Idea Halfway Through