Kentucky Route Zero is a strange experience to get your head around. It’s been stewing in my head for the last couple of days as I try to pick it apart. The game has the feel of a great, meandering, novel that seems inspired by the works of Twain and Steinbeck, yet it’s mixed with a strange and comforting bizarreness that would not be out of place in a David Lynch piece.
Kentucky Route Zero has been years in the making. The original Act I released in 2013 and it is only now, seven years later, that Act V has been released to conclude the journey. Alongside the final Act, the TV Edition has also brought the entire story to consoles.
Kentucky Route Zero is a point and click adventure, but even that description doesn’t quite fit. Players control a delivery driver called Conway who is searching for 5 Dogwood Drive, an address that you find is not accessible by standard roads. Instead, there is a secret highway called the Zero that can only be accessed through unconventional ways like dialing into a specific radio station. It’s not just the Zero that opens up unique scenes, but traveling around Highway 65 as well. In most of the Acts you’ll guide Conway’s truck around the backroads that surround both the 65 and the Zero, where all sorts of scenes and buildings lurk. These glimpses show a forgotten side of Americana with dilapidated buildings and drifters.
As Conway wends his way through the world he is joined by others such as Shannon, who accompanies him on his journey while taking her own. Much of the game is spent with Conway and Shannon going to different places and talking to people. The conversations themselves are multiple choice, so you will likely miss some information depending on what choices you make, but each lifts the lid on the world and its inhabitants. Some of the conversations can be a bit long-winded, but then this goes back into the game’s feel of being a novel in interactive form.
Between the Acts are Interludes and this is where Kentucky Route Zero gets even stranger. Each of these interludes set up the following acts and give some more background of the world, and offer a unique experience. One has you as a barfly in a theatre production acting as an observer, while another involves dialing numbers on a phone and learning about some of the strange places. These breaks are just as engrossing as the main plot and really helps to give you more of a connection to some of the background characters.
Much of the game is spent exploring and talking while letting the story unfold. At times you really do feel like a passenger observing what’s happening instead of being actively involved, yet there are more actively engaging moments like a wonderfully realised text adventure section. The final act also makes a departure from the form of the others, acting as a proper conclusion to the stories of those that Conway has met along the way. It does feel a bit too slow paced, and that’s saying something when the entire game has slow pacing.
Playing on the Switch, Kentucky Route Zero TV Edition takes advantage of the touchscreen, so you can press on actions and items. There are some issues with navigation especially in portable mode, as the characters can get stuck in areas or the pathways are not marked particularly well, but the stylised visuals and sound shine through regardless.