Once in a while, you stumble upon a game that absolutely blows you away. Maybe the graphics set a new industry standard, maybe it’s really funny, or maybe it’s evocative of a mood you didn’t know you wanted in a game until it hit you. This is where dev Cardboard Computer comes in, with its fascinating journey more than seven years in the making. For those unaware, Kentucky Route Zero began as a Kickstarter back in 2011, with the first of five planned episodes dropping in early 2013. As the series progressed, the gap between episodes would get increasingly larger as development grew more elaborate, but the small team’s efforts would pay off splendidly. Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition is unlike anything you’ve ever played before.
On its surface, the game appears to be a text-based title mixed with a traditional point-and-click adventure style, but this does a disservice to the title. While this may be a way to describe it in the broadest sense, the manner in which the game conveys its story is wholly unique, and unlike anything to grace the medium. That may be how the game plays, but the actual structure of the game is so varied that it becomes harder to quantify. Many of the set-pieces have more in common with that of theatre than a normal video game. The game is even broken up into acts and scenes, and on occasion the camera pulls back in such a way that it feels like you are about to see the literal stage pop up.
You play as Conway, a delivery man tasked with making an important delivery for an antique shop alongside your dog, whose name will be different depending on choices you make in-game. Upon getting lost, you find that the way to accomplish your goal is to locate and use the fabled “Zero”, a surreal highway set in rural Kentucky. It is here your journey starts in earnest, as you begin hooking up with a motley crew of interesting characters, each with their own quirks and baggage.
Kentucky Route Zero is a lot of things, but straightforward isn't one of them. While this ultimately sets the game up to be an exquisite journey of personal discovery, intrigue, and fascinating strangeness, it doesn't give the game much of a broad appeal. You should be prepared to put some of your own work into the game to get the most out of it. All of the requisite info is presented to you right from the start, but the connective tissue in many cases will be threadbare, or entirely absent. If you don’t read every word, you may find that some things go from being major narrative payoffs, to mere random, disconnected oddness.
It will be obvious pretty much immediately if this game will be for you, though. We were enraptured from the opening frames, but this is absolutely not a game for all tastes. The opening moments already feel as if you are being lulled into some weird Lynchian excursion. While the game generally doesn’t get quite so abrasively strange as the works of David Lynch, it does retain certain proclivities of the famed filmmaker. The whole game feels as if it takes place in a world ruled by dream logic, and many encounters that Conway has are vaguely inarticulate.
This feeling is heightened by the game’s striking visual presentation, one that is highly stylised with a non-pixelated, low-poly look that again is incredibly unique. This spreads to just about every corner of the game’s visual design too. Rather than render entire cities for instance, you explore each “open world” via a monochromatic map, with Conway’s vehicle represented by a tire travelling across various roads in the area. It’s an interesting means of conveyance, and it helps break up the monotony of just having Conway walk everywhere. The style extends to the title’s use of colour too. As you progress further through the Zero and things keep getting weirder and weirder, you’ll start to see colour spring up much more as well. Things are mostly shades of black and brown early on, but as your mind starts to expand, so too does the visual splendour. And expand it will, as virtually every single environment in the game is an interesting and memorable one. Whether it be a gas station with a monstrous horse head adorning it or a distillery run by glowing skeletons, these environments will stick with you long after you finish the experience.
This memorability extends to the music as well. A curious combination of droning synth ambience and rural Americana folk, Ben Babbitt’s score is every bit up to the task of providing a soundtrack for this wondrous adventure. It’s also the catalyst for a standout moment not just in Kentucky Route Zero but in gaming in general, where Conway gets to see a band perform at a bar. This moment really leans into the surreal aspects of the game, but it’s a joy to behold, even if the gameplay during it amounts to branching dialogue.
Ultimately the gameplay is why we struggle to quantify what the game truly is. While it looks like a text or point-and-click adventure title, that genre generally emphasises puzzles, of which this game has very little -- in a traditional sense, that is. The dialogue and text adventuring by-and-large represent the gameplay, as in a rather genius move, even the things you don’t choose for Conway to say in-game help to characterise him in a way that no other game ever quite accomplishes. Things left unspoken give you a feel for his personality, and greatly enrich the experience.
As we said, you’ll know early on whether or not this is a game you’ll want to stick around for, but it’s hard to argue that the game does anything other than absolutely bull’s-eye what it set out to accomplish. What begins as a game with what seems to be a rote, mundane endpoint quickly devolves into one of the most satisfyingly bizarre deep dives into subject matter hitherto untouched by gaming.
Even with a downright cavalcade of triumphs, Kentucky Route Zero’s strongest asset is its ability to redefine itself from episode to episode. The deeper your journey goes, the stranger things get, but the more they make sense too. While the game will definitely be a bit too bizarre and densely obtuse for some, this is a game unlike anything you’ve ever played before.
I’m playing the game now and it’s amazing. I’m in act 3 scene 2 and this game is already a 10/10 it’s just astounding
It sounds amazing. Really curious to play this!
I knew you would be the one to review this Graham. Excellent review. Really looking forward to playing this 😃
FYI: iam8bit has a pre-order for the phsyical version of this.
Nice. 10/10 will purchase when on sale. Not that the game isn’t worth full price, I just know it’ll take me six months to get around to it with my backlog being what it is.
A Point and Click Episodic Walking Simulator? This sort of thing is my bag, baby!
I live in Kentucky, that alone makes me interested in this this game. Definitely going to give this a try.
I guess this would be something for me. Gonna check it out.
@lacerz It's the best of all of those too!
@badbob001 You better believe I already pre-ordered one haha. The vinyl too!
@Rob_230 I'd have been very sad if I didn't! Thanks
@dark_knightmare2 It's just such an extraordinary game! Act 3 might just be favorite too!
@Arugula Definitely glad to hear that! This is my favorite game of all time, so I wanted to make sure I didn't just aimlessly gush any say nothing of worth at all!
I just want to say this is honestly my favorite game of all time, and if anyone's got any questions about either my review or the game itself, I'd be more than delighted to answer them!
How would you say this compares to something like Oxenfree, with its quasi point and click setting and branching narrative?
@lacerz Very favorably. It's not quite as linear (well most of the time anyway), but the strangeness is introduced to the player in reasonably similar ways to something like Oxenfree!
@gbanas92 thank you for the review. How much is it?
Pretty gutted about ff7 and Cyberpunk being moved so this review is like a spoon of calpol to ease the pain.
@gbanas92 yeah just finished act 3 and it’s by far my favorite that ending just wow
@dark_knightmare2 The scene in the bar is probably my favorite moment in gaming ever!
@themcnoisy $24.99 NA and £17.99 EU This game definitely won't do the same thing Cyberpunk or FF7 were going to, but boy is it good haha
@gbanas92 picked it up and had change in my wallet for backgammon (it was £2 or something).
Cheers bro. Great review haven't needed to buy a game straight after a review for ages. Good job.
@gbanas92 right that was freaking amazing just... hard to describe in words how that made me feel you know. I’m almost at the end of act 4 now and it’s getting mighty close to taking over act 3 has my favorite act so far it’s just so dreamy,trippy and unsettling I love it
@dark_knightmare2 Yeah it's hard to convey in words why I love that moment, but in that bit (and for just generally a lot of the game honestly) I was absolutely hypnotized by the game. God, I've never played anything else like this game, and I love it so much!
@themcnoisy glad I got someone else excited to play it!
I like the sound of this, but can you clarify - when you say "point and click" is there a lot of moving a little cursor around the screen? I'm visually impaired and find cursors in games too hard to see. Also, are the conversations timed? (It usually takes me a while to zoom in and read text in games).
@mrgrieves It's "sort of" a cursor. You use the thumbstick to move like a regular game, and cycle between objects to interact with using the other thumbstick. Dialogue is not timed no, the game's all about setting the mood, there's not really a hurry-up pace to anything in the title!
Thanks, @gbanas92, that's really helpful - sounds like it might be doable.
@mrgrieves i certainly hope so!
@gbanas92 finally got round to this. I'd never heard of it before this review, but that and your reply made the decision for me. Just finished Act 3 and I am liking it very much. It took a while to click - the early parts were intriguing but it's just got better as it went along. Not 100% sure I know what's going on all the time, but I'm enjoying the ride.
You're right about the pointing and clicking - well it's not really pointing so much as selecting. So that suits me. And you can make the text pretty huge. Sometimes I lose where the main character is and just have to press in a direction until something happens. And the car in the distillery was an ass to drive. Not sure if there was a cursor I couldn't see but it seemed to have a life of its own.
But it's a fascinating experience so far and it's definitely got a certain something about it. Looking forward to finding out where it all goes.
@mrgrieves I love act 3 so much! By far my favorite! I will say if you get around to playing it a second time, the stuff they introduce early in the game makes much more sense. The game lays all it's pieces out nice and early, it's just impossible to know they did that until you play through it once!
Yeah, there are a few moments where you don't have eyes on your character but if you hold a direction long enough they come back. There's a greenhouse in act 2 where it's especially bad for that haha. The car didn't translate super well haha. It has a cursor, but it's rough on a console. That aspect was much better on PC.
I love this game so much. Glad you're enjoying it!
@gbanas92 - yeah got to agree, act 3 is definitely the best, although i enjoyed 4 as well quite a bit. I started it again once I finished, partly to see if i could grab a few extra trophies, and found act one a bit irritating on a 2nd go particularly finding my way to the Mahrez house (and by finding my way I mean completely failing to find my way). But it was still interesting to see characters I didn't think had appeared until much later make an appearance. I might still go back and give it another run through.
At any rate, what a great game it was - it kept me utterly absorbed, and I loved some of the music in it. The song in act 3 in particular really reminded me of Au Revoir Simone from Twin Peaks returns - that kind of cheap crappy drum machine but completely mesmerising all the same.
@mrgrieves Hahah, I never really have that issue because I specifically want to avoid the Marquez house until I've seen everything else! The directions they give you in the journal worked well enough when I did want to find it though. Yeah after the first time I beat the game, going back and seeing all of the details for things that don't come up until much later is really cool, and something I had no way of really knowing about on first play.
Yeah! that's a good comparison. There's a tonnnnn of Lynchian influence in this game (especially Twin Peaks), and that's definitely one of my favorite things about it. There's an entire album of Junebug music that's on the way too! It got confirmed shortly after (or before?) Act 4 dropped. Getting a vinyl alongside the regular subreddit. I think someone posted it on the KR0 subreddit, but I don't think it's actually available digitally yet
@gbanas92 - problem wasn't so mucuh finding the Mahrez house as finding my way to it from the car! You can't just push right and arrive like some places.
I think the thing I like about this game is pretty much why I liked the original Twin Peaks - it has this kind of everyday weirdness. It's quite mundane at times, but that makes it relatable and helps give the stranger parts some grounding, and means you get to know the characters. I think twin peaks the return was a little too out there for my personal tastes.
Anyway, will try to keep an eye out for the Junebug album when it appears. Hope it's as good as it could be!
@mrgrieves Ohhhhh during that bit! Gotcha. Yeah that's a little jarring at first haha.
Yeah, there's a lot of overlap between the two. Probably not a coincidence that KR0 is my favorite game, and Twin Peaks is my favorite show honestly haha. Yeah The Return definitely leans further into the David Lynch side of things than it does Mark Frost. I think I prefer the balance that the original show had more than the return, although I did still love that as well.
I didn't grab the Vinyl, but I do really want that to drop digitally so I can get my hands on it haha
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