An experience that had better pay off
I like the first two "Acts" of Kentucy Route Zero - I really do. I love the art-style, I love the writing, I love the etheral soundtrack with the occasional somber blue-grass track.
But I just can't help but shake the feeling that it'll all end like Twin Peaks or Lost or anyone of a dozen "too-clever-by-half", "We're-stringing-you-along-with-the-promise-of-deeper-meaning-but-who-knows-if-we-actually-have-a-coherent-plot-or-if-we're-making-it-up-as-we-go", also known as the "Chris-Carter-Effect" for short.
The game begins with Conway, a delivery person for an antiques shop, stopping by a gas station for directions to "DogWood Drive". He is informed, rather cryptically, that he can only get there by taking "The Zero", a mysterious Highway that appears to be more than it is at first. Along the way, Conway and his dog will meet a bunch of interesting, if slightly unhinged, characters as he journeys across Kentucky looking for the Zero and his ultimate destination of DogWood Drive.
Talking about the plot is sort of like giving the game away. The plot is the draw for Kentucky Route Zero, so I'm not going to talk about specifics. Rather, I'm going to talk about the themes the game's plot evokes - unease, magical realism, somber reflections on life and destiny. The world of Kentucky Route Zero is a lonely one, where people feel disconnected and the landscape almost gives a sense of decay, where you stumble upon small events that have a greater role in the lives of those involved in them, but you just pass them by, glancing at what might be a life-changing tragedy. If I had to liken it to something - imagine walking down the road and you see a bad car-crash. You know that things have changed for the worse for those involved, that it has affected their life... but you just walk on by, not really becoming involved, not really understanding the true significance.
At least, that's what it invokes. The Story for the first Two Acts have built up a lot of tension and mystery - but I don't know if it pays off. I don't know if they actually have a coherent message to tell - it seems like they do, but then again, so did Twin Peaks and the X-files. So far it doesn't appear to be "weird-for-the-sake-of-weird", but just a word of caution - this game is a work in progress.
There is precious little gameplay in Route Zero - so much so that one may hesitate to call it a game. You control various characters and you talk to others and choose dialogue choices that flesh out your character's backstory and opinions or reactions to various events - but your choices don't change how the story progresses, merely the "flavour" of that story. For example, is Conway's dog named Blue or Homer? Or maybe it doesn't have a name? Did he inherit the dog, or did he find it? Does he enjoy his job or does he view it as merely a way to make things meet? You can shape that aspect of Conway through dialogue choices, but it doesn't actually affect the events of the game.
The game encourages exploration - as you journey along the magical landscape of Kentucky Zero's strange take on Kentucky, there are many roads which allow you to experience small events - none of which are crucial to gameplay, but help flesh out the atmosphere of the experience.
Kentucky Zero's cell-shaded, minimalistic art-style is wonderful - it's one of the reasons I picked up the game. The colours, the lighting, the way you can tell so much from what seems like so little - this is one of the high-lights of the game. The audio is very suitable for the atmosphere - ethereal, somewhat disquieting electronic music with the occasional sombre, sad blue-grass track.
Kentucky Route Zero is not for everyone - for starters, it's not really even a game, more of an interactive experience. That doesn't diminish what it is, but if you're hoping for a "game" then you might be disappointed. Each act also only lasts for a couple of hours or so. But it does a fantastic job of building atmosphere and the writing is a joy to read. It is a good experience, if you're looking for one. I just hope, however, that they manage to maintain the quality I've seen for the next three unreleased acts.