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Kentucky Route Zero - Act 1 Review

  • First Released Feb 22, 2013
  • Reviewed Jan 11, 2013
  • PC

There isn't much to it, but Kentucky Route Zero is beautiful and mysterious enough to grip you.

Kentucky Route Zero. It's a lost highway in rural America, and reaching it isn't as simple as driving your truck onto the on-ramp. The first entry in this episodic adventure series is stylish and moody, urging you to consider what riddles lie ahead by giving you haunted glimpses of the lives the locals lead and once led. Beneath this style, however, isn't much substance. Kentucky Route Zero invites you to participate in its story by allowing you to select dialogue that fits your vision of who its main characters are. But your choices impact only that vision, not the path the characters follow, and many such choices feel hollow and game-ish. In a certain regard, Kentucky Route Zero is like the performance of a talented magician who diverts your attention from his trick with a dramatic flourish.

Light usually brings a sense of warmth to a dark chill. But in Kentucky Route Zero, the cool colors actually enhance the ghostliness.
Light usually brings a sense of warmth to a dark chill. But in Kentucky Route Zero, the cool colors actually enhance the ghostliness.

Yet such flourishes can result in a hushed awe, and Kentucky Route Zero's somber visuals inspire a similar reverence. You play as antique delivery driver Conway, pointing and clicking your way up a winding walkway and through a claustrophobic mine, among other locales. The interplay between light and dark makes for several solemn moments, and the act of turning off the lights can reveal chilling sights. The murkiness is offset by the down-home vibe of various animations: the weary saunter of Conway's lanky dog, the shiver of his running truck, and the way a mouse click results in the subtle toss of a horseshoe to mark your destination.

The rural uneasiness is also communicated through the game's story and dialogue. An old man tells you, "Did you hear that wreck? Truck full of bottles--I dunno, beer bottles? Whiskey?" He's blind, but Kentucky Route Zero allows that information to emerge through natural dialogue, rather than clumsily forcing the information upon you. Of your canine companion, the game says: "An old hound in a straw hat. Both have seen better days." Descriptions are often this simple and evocative.

Kentucky Route Zero envelops you in its singular sense of place, and you begin to share Conway's trepidation as he edges closer to his secretive destination. You can react to your circumstances with various lines of dialogue, yet these conversation trees are a mixed blessing. On one hand, dialogue and action options intimate a sense of choice that the game never makes good on. At one point, for instance, you can decide whether to tap an object, clear your throat, or rub your finger along a surface, but your choice has no bearing on the adventure or on the development of its characters, leading you to wonder why there is a choice at all. At another, you enter passwords into a computer, but it doesn't matter which you choose: you always succeed in your task. You even get to tell an entire story of a roof you once repaired, one dialogue choice at a time, but in terms of plot and progression, such choices are window dressing.

Conway has no problem pulling over and asking for directions.
Conway has no problem pulling over and asking for directions.

On the other hand, some dialogue options allow you to become a narrative collaborator. As you relate past events to a newfound friend, you can share that a thunderstorm disrupted your plans, or you can say you were running late because you were hung over. Eventually, your mental image of who Conway is becomes clearer, which is emotionally empowering, even though there are no practical in-game repercussions. You also briefly take control of another character, Shannon, and make similar decisions for her in the first five seconds of her appearance. The narrative conceit works well for Conway, because the game gives you a starting point from which to mold his backstory. In Shannon's case, you're thrust into narrative decisions without having the chance to paint even a basic mental picture of her in advance, which robs your choices of their emotional power--the only power Kentucky Route Zero's choices possess.

The hour-long act may not reach many conclusions, but it does leave you wanting more, which is an admirable quality in the first episode of an ongoing adventure. Kentucky Route Zero is a pleasure to look at and interact with, brimming with anxious memories and begging you to peer into the distance. And yet it also comes across as a bit underdeveloped. Some dialogue options seem arbitrary and unnecessary, and the game opens with an easy but logical puzzle of sorts, but no others, setting an expectation it never fulfills. Nonetheless, this is a compelling mystery, and Conway is a likable leading man who must listen to the whispers of the past if he wishes to reach his journey's end.

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The Good
Attractive, austere visual design makes for a mysterious ambience
Eerie story makes you want to know more
Dialogue options allow you to establish backstory
The Bad
Some dialogue choices feel contrived and unsatisfying
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17 Comments  RefreshSorted By 
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Avatar image for jimllfixit

I like it, but at what stages are the other episodes gonna be released ??

Avatar image for halldors78

exactly, point and click adventures are great, makes you think and its also sometimes great to just sit and chill out playing a great story instead of being hyper playing some action game

Avatar image for breathnac

Sometimes it's nice to just sit back in your recliner with a cup of tea and play a good 'ol point and click

Avatar image for starduke

This type of game always loses me at "point and click". To me, it evokes an instant sense of boredom.

Avatar image for swamptick

@starduke You are missing out then. This game is brilliant.

Avatar image for trollkind

I'm happy to pay just for the art, this is gorgeous!

Avatar image for surrealme

@trollkind Agreed. I love the art style.

Avatar image for petez34

@trollkind Gorgeous? do you also consider that Asian elephant with the brush in his trunk, splashing paint, an artist?

Avatar image for trollkind

@petez34 @trollkind I'd call that a Kinect tech demo, if anyone remembers their paint splashing drawing demo. I'd call that a silly tourist attraction, a feat of animal training.
So, you don't like the style, fair enough, it's done really well though. Some of the animations, the lighting and how it transforms your surroundings. I can appreciate well done minimalism more than throwing everything and the kitchen sink at a players face just to keep them awake.

Avatar image for swamptick

@trollkind @petez34 I thought the art style was amazing bordering on genius. It's a testament that an artists vision is greater than technical powers of a super graphics card.

Avatar image for pathosfire

Awww, it's not a branching storyline? That's too bad.

But still excited to play this, I've heard good things!

Avatar image for slefo29

That first screen shot had me thinking, "All right, another Limbo!" I know, I know, there will be no sequel to that game and I respect and understand that. Although, I wouldn't mind a sequel, the puzzles, atmosphere was just awesome.

Avatar image for Kolimako

@slefo29 "All right, another Limbo!" LOL

Avatar image for AAAAAAAAAAAAAB

Kevin reviews something other than a AAA game????

What a pleasant surprise.

Avatar image for fbgbdk4

@AAAAAAAAAAAAAB Kevin already did the review of To The Moon, which btw made me to play this game, and remember it until today.

Avatar image for yomanjdf

what is the grade?"

Avatar image for mdinger



Kentucky Route Zero More Info

  • First Released Feb 22, 2013
    • Linux
    • Macintosh
    • + 4 more
    • Nintendo Switch
    • PC
    • PlayStation 4
    • Xbox One
    Kentucky Route Zero is a magical realistic adventure game about a secret highway in the caves beneath Kentucky, and the mysterious folks who travel it.
    Average Rating110 Rating(s)
    Please Sign In to rate Kentucky Route Zero
    Developed by:
    Cardboard Computer
    Published by:
    Cardboard Computer, Annapurna Interactive
    Not yet assigned a final ESRB rating.
    Rating Pending
    Not yet assigned a final ESRB rating.