Thursday, November 30, 2023

Impressions: Kentucky Route Zero (PC)

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Find the Zero. Make the delivery.

It’s dark out. Your truck dings as your gas meter slides to empty, and you know you can only make it a few more miles. The night is young, and it’s crisp out; your truck rattles with its cargo safely in the back. You pull over to the nearest gas station, and speak with the old man there. He gives you a treat for your dog, and asks you to restart the generator.

There are people in the basement. The old man knew nothing about them, and when you turn your back, they disappear.

So begins the first act of Kentucky Route Zero, an independent point-and-click game developed by Cardboard Computer. Despite the genre, it focuses much more on atmosphere and characterization than puzzles. Players initially take the role of Conrad, a truck driver for an antique shop, making their final delivery–he needs to find the Kentucky Route Zero freeway. Through the game, players will control multiple other people, from Shannon Marquez–a woman Conrad meets while searching for the Zero–to a robotic pair of musicians, to a young boy, and others, including a woman who works for the mysterious power company seeming to take over all the small businesses in Kentucky.

The game is highly surreal; its polygonal visuals give almost a paper-cutout feeling to everything, but never detract from the experience. Set pieces vary wildly, from an underground tunnel system to an office building with a floor dedicated entirely to bears to a farmhouse with a television that displays the world beyond. The world map itself is comprised entirely of white lines on a black background, almost as if a roadmap, which does a lot for the game’s atmosphere. It never crosses outright into horror, but there were a few times I found myself holding my breath; the opening of Act III, in particular, stood out to me, as the robotic musicians begin to perform and the ceiling of their venue melts away into the night sky. Even the scene transitions–plain black screens with white text declaring the scene number and setting–enhance the atmosphere. Tube televisions and brick cell phones give the feeling that the game is set in the recent past, but it never does anything to alienate players. The unnatural elements are never questioned, even when Conrad’s given directions to drive until he finds a cathode ray and then turn around and travel until he finds what he needs. Quite plainly, Kentucky Route Zero‘s atmosphere is entrancing, and the electronic soundtrack by Ben Babbitt strengthens it.

Characters each have their own distinct gait and voice; although the game’s dialogue is text-only, Cardboard Computer offers quite a few dialogue choices often, letting players determine Conrad’s backstory as well as multiple characters’ personalities. There are always a few constants; Shannon is always somewhat stern and set on helping Conrad finish his delivery to the strangely-unreachable Dogwood Drive, where small child Ezra is excitable and Conrad tends to lapse into memory lane. Kentucky Route Zero does a good job of developing their characters even amid all the choices given, and it’s nice to see a multiracial cast whose background is a part of them without dominating the narrative or becoming stereotypical. We also are given hints at sexualities other than straight, although no character outright admits it; it’s possible, of course, that I managed to miss some during my playthrough.

Of particular note, too, is Act III, which centers primarily around a computer found inside the Zero, called Xanadu. It’s within Xanadu that the game gets meta, with players controlling characters within a virtual reality, criticizing limited controls and strange character actions. It’s quite a wonderful portion, and was quite possibly my favorite part of the game thus far.

While I think the game is breathtaking, I do have to mention that I found it rather hard to concentrate on it, especially in the earlier parts. Acts IV and V are yet to be released, which may help to alleviate the problem, and each of the released acts last only about an hour or two, but for me, it wasn’t completely my cup of tea. There doesn’t seem to be much of an overarching plot besides Conrad completing his delivery, which lends the game a meandering feeling, which while fascinating also causes it to seem more like a sequence of events that simply happen rather than a cohesive quest. Again, though, the game isn’t complete just yet, and if the quality of the narrative and setpieces from Act III is maintained throughout the rest of Kentucky Route Zero, it’ll definitely be a game well worth playing.

Kentucky Route Zero is a mix of magical realism, gorgeous polygonal visuals, great music, and a strong emphasis on characterization, and definitely something to keep your eye on.

Kentucky Route Zero is incomplete; Acts I-III were completed within the span of a few hours. It is available through Steam and the Humble Bundle site; the pass for all five acts costs $25 USD. Copies of all available acts as of the time of this writing were provided to the reviewer for free by Cardboard Computer.

Image courtesy Cardboard Computer


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