Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1 Review: Enter the Surreal South

It’s difficult to describe Kentucky Route Zero in any meaningful way, though, at least without spoiling things. The opening scene includes Conway interacting with the gas station attendant and heading down into the basement of the station to find the breaker. There, he finds a group of people talking about playing a board game, but their essential 20-sided die is missing. They also ignore Conway as if he isn’t there. The solution to the puzzle is elegant but simplistic, involving Conway turning off his lantern to find the glow-in-the-dark game piece. When he returns it to the table, the people there have vanished, but the power is restored.

The entire act is like this, a slow-burn tale that makes it difficult to judge just what’s real and what’s not with teh game world seeming to ebb and flow with its own unknown rhythm. It plays strangely with its own mechanics, too: After you leave the gas station, for example, you can drive all over the state, seemingly, and as you go you’ll pass landmarks. Some can even be entered to trigger full scenes, but others get a textual treatment only, complete with the player picking text options to open doors and explore rooms, all from the map screen. These are all context, filling in bits of the world of Route Zero but only in your own imagination. They leave you to figure out what sort of place this is supposed to be.

At other moments, the game suddenly shifts perspective to give you dialog options for a different character, and it’ll even do this mid-conversation — first you’re guiding Conway’s answers, then another person’s, and then back to Conway. It’s interesting that the moments when this happens give the player a little more control over the characterization of the people in the story without derailing it, and it makes us wonder about the world beyond the confines of the game.

My very favorite instance in the act happened later, in darkness. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will suggest that when you have the option to turn off the lights, you do so, and leave it off for a little while.

I can’t say that I’m quite so enamored of Kentucky Route Zero as some other critics I’ve read since the first act was launched, although I did very much enjoy it. But it is a game almost purely about atmosphere, aesthetics and strangeness, with minimal gameplay to be had. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it reminds of The Walking Dead to a degree, and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery a great deal more — but it’s likely that this won’t be a game for everyone, as it opts to be more cerebral, experimental and emotional than actually game-like.

That said, Kentucky Route Zero is gorgeous, haunting and effecting. It’s the kind of experience that’s difficult to get out of your head once you’ve had it, and I’m hoping to go through and try different choices and paths for a chance to squeeze a little more out of this little chunk of the world. The first act sets the bar high for what’s to come, and I’m excited to see how Conway’s story plays out, and how much stranger this fictional Kentucky will get.

Pros:

  • Beautiful graphical style
  • Tons of atmosphere dripping from the presentation and great bluegrass soundtrack
  • Nails the “magical realism” feel, creating something that’s more dream than game
  • Suggests a deep and engaging adventure-ish experience in acts to follow
  • Some really great moments and fresh-feeling use of simple mechanics

Cons:

  • Little in the way of actual gameplay, puzzles, or even goals
  • With the emphasis on atmosphere, it’s possible a lot of players will feel it’s a bit too weird
  • First act is fairly short — somewhere between one and two hours

Final Score: 80/100

You can download Kentucky Route Zero from Cardboard Computer’s website.


Read more of Phil Hornshaw’s work here, and follow him and Game Front on Twitter: @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.

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