Striking imagery and evocative words make this one to play
Kentucky Route Zero’s visual splendour draws you in from its first scene to its last. As the opening title screen fades from black, the striking imagery revealing an abstract gas station doused in the setting sunlight cannot be overstated. As the orange hues disappear beyond the hilltops this moonlit tale begins in earnest; a mysterious and dream-like journey along a pastoral path deep in rural America. It’s beautiful vector art style and traditional point-and-click trappings invite an audience, but edge deeper into its singular wonder and it reveals something much more alluring.
Its serene world permeates atmosphere. The delightfully ambient score is complemented by sound design that breathes subtle life into proceedings. The peaceful drone of critters in a secluded forest, or the hum of an aging truck engine as it sits at the foot of a lonely house on a lofty hill. It feels lived in despite its pensiveness, evoking haunting memories of previous events; enveloping you in a solemn sense of place as you point and click your way from one location to the next in search of the titular Route Zero.
It’s on this journey to find a seemingly existential highway that Kentucky Route Zero’s core mechanical conceit comes to fruition. It may be a point-and-click adventure but its puzzles are few and far between. In fact, the sole puzzle comes early on, requiring you to simply turn off your torch to discover a glow-in-the-dark twenty-sided die, hinting at similar puzzles to come that simply never arrive. Being the first of five acts leaves an open avenue to explore conundrums further down the road, but their absence may not be completely to a fault.
Kentucky Route Zero’s player agency comes from the way you interact with other characters. You play as Conway, a delivery driver for an antique shop who’s essentially a blank slate for you to project onto. With each conversation you’re given multiple dialogue options to choose from, allowing you to graft your own questions, back-story and trepidations onto him. This presents an illusion of choice since whichever option you choose has no bearing on the narrative’s predetermined path. Even when you’re given various options to solve a password riddle, for example, you’ll succeed no matter what you choose.
This lack of consequence can feel underwhelming, but the way Kentucky Route Zero’s narrative weaves its tale dismisses any ill feelings. For one, its writing is fantastic. A computer doesn’t simply turn on, it “wakens from its reverie”. As you meet new characters they’re descriptive yet vague, choosing to conceal more than they reveal. Head out onto the open road and you’re free to uncover Kentucky’s hidden secrets as you descend down paltry roads from a bird’s-eye view.
A desolate church sparks interest but is disappointingly hidden away from the magnificent art style. Instead, these moments take the form of brief text adventures, describing in great detail and with varying panache, offering you a glimpse into this world without being able to see it for yourself. It’s literary and succeeds down this path with relative aplomb, despite a lack of scope. Its evocative words do more than enough.
Your choice of dialogue options may lack consequence or affect the world and its characters, but it empowers you as an accomplice to the narrative. Conway becomes your own creation and an extension of yourself. You’re able to craft stories of his past through dialogue, presenting an adventure where choices are emotional rather than mechanical. At times these choices are inconsequential or arbitrary, but there’s little to dwell on once the art direction and its cogent use of light and dark sweeps you away to another awe-inspiring moment of hushed beauty. Its narrative is compelling, its writing thoughtful. The mechanics may be little more that a delivery mechanism for its story but Kentucky Route Zero’s mysteries leave you wanting more. Fortunately, there’s more to come.