For the most part, Kentucky Route Zero makes absolutely no sense, but that shouldn’t prevent you from experiencing this poetic adventure.
Kentucky Route Zero is an episodic point-and-click graphic adventure that overflows with personality. There’s nothing traditional about this game: there’s no inventory, voice acting or convoluted challenges. Instead, the main focus of Kentucky Route Zero is placed on characterization, atmosphere and interaction. This is a love letter to Americana, a poem disguised as a game and an experience that exudes surreal elements.
In Kentucky Route Zero you take on the role of Conway, a truck driver who transports furniture and antiques across the country. At the beginning of this adventure Conway and his faithful canine companion (which you have to name) arrive at a gas station named Equus Oils. Conway is looking for an elusive route called The Zero to make a mysterious delivery. In order to find Route Zero though, the delivery man needs to interact with various characters who have remarkable stories to tell.
As soon as you start playing Kentucky Route Zero you realize that this isn’t a regular graphic adventure. Inspecting items and environments or interacting with NPCs allows you to make various decisions, such as choosing the lines Conway will utter when speaking with other characters. Inspecting Conway’s old hound, for instance, allows you to name the dog. Although this sort of interaction is make-believe to a certain extent (most of your decisions you make don’t affect the way in which the story unfolds,) the process allows you to get to know the characters a little better.
When you’re given the option to ask questions to NPCs, you can cut right to the chase or you can choose to ask them personal questions to get to know them (and the place where they live) a bit better. What’s good about this approach is that you can choose which questions to ask. As a result, you can finish this hour-long adventure in a few minutes if you ask the vital information first, but why would you do that when the story is so captivating?
Although I wouldn’t advise playing Kentucky Route Zero in a hurry, it’s great that the game trusts players by giving them the freedom to undertake this experience however they prefer.
But for a game that features choice as part of its core gameplay, it’s a shame that none of those decisions have an effect in the story. For example, during the first minutes of the adventure you need to use an office computer to locate the directions of the Marquez Farm, but before you do so, you need to guess the machine’s password. The password is a combination of carefully chosen sentences that make up a poem, but no matter which password you choose, there’s no wrong answer.
The same happens with the various dialogue options: there may be numerous options to choose from, but the result is always the same. Nevertheless, what I like about this approach is that even though there’s no way to fail a puzzle, the game provides the impression that you’re given the tools to re-shape this adventure in a way you think convenient, transforming an already constructed world into a personal and intimate experience.
The gameplay is overly simple, mainly because this is a game that prioritizes exploration over challenge. As a consequence, the gameplay involves fetching items, chatting with NPCs or simply deciding where to go next. The lack of challenge is understandable though, since the main focus of this game is on the creation of an atmospheric experience unlike everything else and not on getting the player frustrated.
Nevertheless, what Kentucky Route Zero lacks in challenge, it more than makes up for in personality. The dialogues you exchange with the locals are simple yet thoughtful. In fact, the dialogue is one of the main components that contribute to the game’s mysterious atmosphere. This is one of those titles in which it’s pretty much impossible to guess what’s going to happen next. One moment you’re talking to the gas station owner and the next you’re exploring an abandoned mine with a woman you have just met.
The somber visual style contributes to the adventure’s ominous and enigmatic tone. For example, some specific locations illuminate as you get closer to them and the camera zooms in and out creating a rather cinematic effect. This gives the impression that some of the events that take place could be hallucinations or visions, enhancing the idea of unpredictability.
Despite its brevity and lenient gameplay, Kentucky Route Zero is a gripping adventure that leaves you wanting more. Its inviting characters, mysterious tone, atmospheric setting and intriguing storyline make Kentucky Route Zero an adventure not to be missed.