Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1 Review: Enter the Surreal South
From the moment protagonist Conway steps out of his delivery truck at a strange gas station in Kentucky, something feels off. This is not reality as we know it. It is stark in its design and beautiful; it is filled with strange characters; it includes a dog who wears a hat.
This is Kentucky Route Zero, a point-and-click adventure title that is a lot closer to a dream than it is a video game. It’s a game world filled with the interplay of light and darkness and what both reveal, and with characters who are standing on just this side of corporeal existence — and the line is growing a little blurry.
If that’s a little too vague, let’s try to be a little clearer: Kentucky Route Zero is a game in which Conway, your protagonist character, is trying to make a delivery in his antique shop van. He’s lost as he heads out to make his last delivery, and night is falling, so he pulls over to get directions at a gas station. There he meets a man sitting in an easy chair out by the pumps, who is lamenting that the power is off. If Conway would just head down into the basement and restore it, he surely could use the computer to find a person who could get him directions to where the attendant says he needs to go — Kentucky Route Zero.
It’s all a bit weird.
Kentucky Route Zero (PC [Reviewed])
Developer: Cardboard Computer
Publisher: Cardboard Computer
Release Date: Jan. 8, 2013
MSRP: $7 ($25 for all five acts)
Just where the highway “Kentucky Route Zero” can be found is a mystery, and finding it is the focus of most of Act 1. I suspect it doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t matter, because the game is about atmosphere and characters, and not so much about trite video game conventions such as goals. You’re here because you’re here.
Cardboard Computer describes Kentucky Route Zero as a “magical realist adventure game,” and that’s about as close to as a decent way to explain the game as you’re going to get. Visually, it reminds of games like Another World and Flashback, with a lot of hard polygonal edges and bright colors. But it’s the atmosphere that counts, and Kentucky Route Zero moves and shifts in such a way as to suggest that as you start playing it, you really are dropping into a reality that is unlike our own — magical in undefined ways, growing more fantastic and strange with each mile Conway drives down the road.
From a mechanical standpoint, the game is fairly simple, however. Yes, it feels like an adventure game, in that you click on stuff to interact with it or to move Conway around. Your controls are fairly limited; as you move close to something with which you can interact (like Conway’s dog), you’ll get a small menu prompt, usually the ability to examine that thing, and if it’s a character, to talk with it. Dialog is all text, delivered like a screenplay, often letting the player choose what to say from a list of options. Much of the dialog is cryptic and confusing, and you’ll be answering questions from other characters almost at random as you fill in bits of Conway’s backstory from your options. They don’t matter so much, but they allow you to create portions of this story that make them your own.