Road trips on strange roads to strange places.
Driving late at night is an extremely weird experience. Roads that are usually lively and full are completely empty, an absolute silence stretching across a space lit only by dim streetlights and your own headlights. This weirdness only compounds when that drive is outside of a city or a town, with sparse scenery and wide open fields or hills surrounding you. It truly feels like anything could be out there, and anything could happen. This feels like the kind of tone Cardboard Computer’s adventure game Kentucky Route Zero is aiming for, a surreal and thought provoking narrative about a man just trying to make a delivery and the people he picks up along the way. Despite one or two small problems, Kentucky Route Zero manages to pull this tone off fantastically.
Much of the player’s time with Kentucky Route Zero is spent in the shoes of a man named Conway, a delivery driver for an antiques shop who’s out to deliver something to an address that appears to not be accessible through ordinary means. He’s travelling alongside an old dog that once belonged to his former boss, and eventually picks up even more travelling companions. These include characters like Shannon, a TV repair woman searching for her missing cousin, or Ezra, a young boy looking for his lost family alongside his brother. Very early on Conway is told that what he’s looking for can only be accessed by driving along the Zero, a mysterious and otherworldly highway that can only be accessed through and seems to only operate by unconventional rules. The story is split into five acts, with an interlude between each one that usually introduces something that will play into the next act, and each of these acts are about one or two hours in length.
In terms of gameplay there’s really not a lot to say about Kentucky Route Zero. In general the game works much like your usual point and click adventure, with prompts to look at, talk to, or interact with various things around the environment as you get closer to them. The right stick allows you to change what prompt or object is being highlighted, and the character being controlled will automatically walk to where they need to go once that prompt has been selected. Conversations are almost visual novel style, with dialogue being presented through a text window and every once and awhile the player being able to choose a dialogue option to move the story along. While most of the dialogue interaction is nothing special, every once and awhile the game pulls out something cool and unique with it, such as one sequence I particularly enjoyed involving a musical performance.
When not on a point and click style screen the player will often find themselves on an overworld style map screen, which looks different depending on your method of transportation or what road you’re currently on. A journal that can be selected in the bottom right corner will usually give you vague directions as to where you’re supposed to head next, and while the roads on the map aren’t labeled I never seemed to have any trouble finding exactly where I needed to go. This does tie into one of my few problems with Kentucky Route Zero: sometimes getting where you need to go takes a bit too long. In general the game isn’t in a hurry to get anywhere, moving at a slow and careful pace, and most of the time this isn’t really an issue. However sometimes this slow pace results in a sequence running for a while with nothing happening. One such experience for me was during my navigation of the Zero for the first time, which resulted in me driving in circles for what felt like several minutes until the thing I was looking for finally showed up and I was able to move on. This is not something that happens very often, but it definitely stuck in my memory nonetheless.
Overall Kentucky Route Zero may not be for everybody, but those for whom it is for will find it an incredibly well put together experience. The dark and mysterious atmosphere and memorable locations mixed with well written and human feeling characters make this game something that players who value a narrative focused experience won’t soon forget. It’s a story about looking for that which you’ve lost, and maybe finding some new stuff along the way, whether you really mean to be doing so or not. Those looking for a challenge or something a bit more action packed won’t find what they’re looking for here, but those looking for a surreal and mysterious tale will have come to the right place.