Kentucky Route Zero

Developer: Cardboard Computer | Released: 2013-2020 | Genre: Adventure, Point & Click

After about 7 years of development, the fifth and last act of this point-and-click adventure game was finally released in early 2020. That was the moment I had patiently been waiting for. I wanted to play all five acts in one go, like binge-watching a television show.

Kentucky Route Zero is one of the most atmospheric adventure games I’ve ever played. It was also one of the easiest. While I wouldn’t call it a walking simulator, it was virtually void of puzzles.

I have seen a lot of comparisons to Another World, but that only relates to the graphics. The gameplay was of course completely different. The game really wanted to twist the hackneyed point-and-click adventure game concept on its ear, and it was refreshing to me. It used flat-shaded 3D polygon graphics and mostly scrolled sideways, but there were exceptions where the scenery was rotated in place or zoomed in.

Hotspot hunting and inventory manipulation was completely absent. Walking closer to things revealed black bubbles with icons to click, and the game was mostly driven by typed-out text and dialog choices. But even this had a lot of twists. Most of the time the dialog choices gave me the power to build the backstory of the protagonists, sort of like when defining the personality of a character in the beginning of The Elder Scrolls games. A rare once in a while, the game even faded into a text adventure for a short stint.

It had no voice acting. It was all reading. However, the ambient background sounds and the color palette for the locations more than made up for this, adding to the unique atmosphere of the game.

The game mostly had me in control of Conway, an old, skinny truck driver trying to find his last delivery along the route in the title of the game. He also had an old and lanky dog with a straw hat on. Sometimes I could talk to it, but it never uttered a bark in return. Later I met other persons that joined a team, and from then on the dialog with NPC was often a mix between selecting a question from either Conway or them.

In between visiting locations, I was shown a map of the area along route 65. I could drive the truck icon around in this spider web of roads. Getting close to a point of interest either meant another location to visit or a short story about it while staying put on the map. In the later acts, the driving was sometimes made surrealistic by driving in a circle of lines forming a tunnel all while big target icons faded in.

Particulars

Clicking a target spot in a location showed a white pole with a horse shoe swinging around it.

Sometimes a television or a tape recorder was turned on to reveal a story, and while the text was typed out, mumbling ambient sounds were typically playing alongside it. The only clear words heard in this game came from phone calls or the odd music pieces.

Spoiler: Click

ACT 1

Great image at the gas station with that giant horse head statue. Made for a memorable commencement. This is also where I could select a name for the dog. I chose Homer. Yes, Homer. No, not Blue. Homer.

I met Shannon in a mine and we rode through its dark tunnels on a motorized tram. It could even use a turn table. Not a lot to do in this mine, though. However, the flashlight used there remained strong.

Can I borrow this flashlight for the next horror game, please?

At one point in the mine, Conway hurt one of his legs and was limping along for the rest of the first act as well as the second. This reduced the running to walking – but it wasn’t too annoying. Small locations.

The church on the map was empty. Eerie.

ACT 2

Weird intermission with a trio in a museum, checking out stuff. And the exit was well hidden.

In the cathedral-turned-office-building in the second act, there was a floor with bears. All other floors were clerks or records. The game did the good old game of bureaucratic ping-pong until Shannon demanded to see Lula – the person with the directions. She also recommended a doctor for Conway.

The bureaucratic loop immediately made me think of the eighth task in The Twelve Tasks of Asterix.

The game went a bit more surrealistic as the duo tried to find Dr. Truman. First, they found a museum where their actions were described in third person by unseen museum personnel. Later they found a kid on the roof of the building, where I could use an umbrella – it was raining cats and dogs. After a short talk with the kid, Ezra, his enormous bird friend picked us all up for a flight across the map screen.

The big ass bird was like that giant crow in the beginning of Dark Souls.

After some fiddling around on the map screen I found a forest. Now I was in control of the kid as he walked towards the right. Thoughts of Limbo here – probably intentional too. Sometimes obscuring trees revealed a new house in the forest where Conway and Shannon was now standing for more dialog.

And finally Conway found Dr. Truman.

ACT 3

The third act was significantly longer than the first two. The intermission alone took forever to get through and that was actually annoying. The bartender and a few customers were talking like in a stage play with an audience present, of which I was observing from a fixed first person perspective, nailed down by a round table. It ended when an eerie glowing skeleton showed up.

Especially the constant panning between the bar and a table with two was a bit of a pain.

Luckily the rest of the act wasn’t this annoying at all. I’ve seen some user reviews claim that the game goes downhill from the third act, but that was not my impression at all. It was still very atmospheric, had a lot of intriguing scenes, and the story (though often weird) had purpose.

Conway’s leg was fixed by the doctor but now looked like a glowing skeleton leg. Meatless. He could have had a brass telescope as a leg for all I cared, as long as he was running again. And he was.

After leaving in the truck, it died just a few meters down the road by a tree. A motorbike with Junebug and Johnny arrived, and they soon became part of the team too. They were supposed to perform at the bar from the intermission, and they invited Conway, Shannon and Ezra to listen in. This was a nice surprise with an actual song where I could choose a few lines along the way. The roof lifted away in pieces and Junebug was suddenly wearing a glowing dress. Hints of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks here? Definitely.

Speaking of Junebug, why did she always make noises like a robot when she was walking around?

While waiting by the tree, Shannon fixed the radio in Conway’s truck. This made for a cute radio icon on the road map for tuning in on the AM and FM bands. Later this was also used to find a specific route.

The further road adventures of the now five strong met an abrupt end at a discontinued bridge. Instead we ran up a long set of boardwalks to a big cave with a huge bonfire in the middle. There were a few people to talk to. The babbling Andrew was quite amusing. The pipe-chewing Donald went on about an old computer named Xanadu that unfortunately was no longer working.

Xanadu was quite the center of this act. It was an archaic computer like those from the 50’s or 60’s, with a blinking oscilloscope as a monitor. Unfortunately Xanadu was worn down and thus unintelligible.

Just noise in its words and vector lines.

We had to visit some strangers in a church nearby to learn how to fix it. This visit was made short by not controlling Conway and Shannon as they went into the church, but in the end of the act they told what happened in there as sort of a flashback. A bench lowered down like an elevator to an underground factory led by glowing skeletons. One of the skeletons thought Conway was applying as a new truck driver. He drove us to a parking lot in a small factory car and I had to inspect the truck by clicking icons.

Talk about an unexpected scene. But luckily the skeleton also divulged how to clean the computer.

Back in the cave, the computer was cleaned and now working. This started a unique sort of text adventure with blinking images on the oscilloscope monitor. Conway typed commands suggested by everyone else in the team. I came down a hole in the ground to a cave with tunnels, found a couple of NPC from earlier in the game, and met a few vector skeletons.

It ended by everyone fleeing out of the hole after which Xanadu switched into sort of a cave maintenance simulator. Yep, another completely unexpected event – this game was full of surprises. I had to hire new assistants, assign tasks to them, and sleep to see statistics updated. It didn’t take long until we figured this just went on forever, so we closed down Xanadu and left the cave.

We went back to the bureau with the clerks and the records. This was the point where Conway told about the flashback as a fully playable sequence. The skeleton demanded that Conway took the job as payment for having a drink in the factory below the church, and the act ended with Conway admitting that he would probably have to get on with that the next morning.

ACT 4

The fourth act was even longer than the third one. I clocked around 2½ hours.

At least the intermission didn’t overstay its welcome this time. Showing an an old phone with the rotary dial replaced by push buttons, I could call a number and listen to an actual voice offering me numbers to push. I could hang up at any time and continue after a little bit of extra dialog.

Bud sadly, I must say that this act wasn’t quite as satisfying as the previous acts.

It wasn’t the setting that was at fault. In fact, it was quite wonderful – the team was onboard a ship (with a mechanical mammoth) sailing down a meandering vector line river, sometimes stepping off on floating islands for some sightseeing. Unfortunately there was a lot of small stories for many secondary islands we passed by and they went on for too long, even interspersed with story-building dialog options.

Where the third act intermission overstayed its welcome, the entire fourth act did.

If the previous acts barely had a few locations that didn’t move the story along much, the fourth act was too abundant with these. Together with the many secondary descriptions, it piled up the feeling of an act with too much empty filler. Just the location near a rum bar on a beach felt like it didn’t serve any purpose other than just relaxing for a bit. (Strangely a few bureau clerks were there too.)

All islands we landed near always had two choices – play a sequence on the boat itself with some of the characters staying behind, or join the others walking ashore. I only stayed behind with Ezra the first time around, recording sounds on a tape recorder. It seemed to serve no purpose, but perhaps that’s because I never wanted to choose the first option after I discovered how I missed out on the islands.

Come on, developers, that’s not a fair choice. Of course we want to see the islands.

Another almost redundant island visit was using a phone. Lots of team members calling loved ones for a quick talk. We got to see their acquaintances from elsewhere in the world, but it was only the secondary characters that did this. Conway never made a call. Instead, he jumped into the drink and swam to the boat, obviously being too impatient to wait for the others to finish their phone calls.

Conway, who didn’t have a lot of action this act – partly caused by the introduction of yet more people from the boat that also needed dialog – now had a glowing right skeleton arm in addition to his leg.

On the next island with a center, part of the team when ashore to take part in a test to earn cash. One of them answered written questions in staged rooms after which a couple of supervisors commented a VHS recording of it. And yet another island visit was even more inventive. Cate and the kid Ezra was looking for mushrooms on a small grove island, and both characters had dialog boxes side by side that could be controlled simultaneously. While looking, a big boat with only a myriad of cats passed by.

Conway and Shannon now borrowed the speedboat for a quick delivery. They passed through a bat cave with zoological information on posters about the lives of these bats. Then they arrived in a flooded subway tunnel. Shannon talked to a few NPC, and in the meantime Conway was sort of abducted from the place by a boat with glowing skeletons. Probably for him to start his job at the underground factory.

That was the last we saw of Conway that act. Luckily Shannon had agreed to deliver the antiques.

The act continued in a tower restaurant called “Sam & Ida’s” where a diving capsule was just being hauled up below by the water. Ezra and Johnny was playing a game of grabbing a piece of toy. I could try to get this right in dialog choices, but the vague descriptions of moving the claw didn’t even being to give me the idea about where it really was. No toy for you.

Next island had houses gently rocking the waves independently from each other. A woman was playing sort of a laser harp. We continued to a tower with a spiral boardwalk to the surface. Clara joined the team instead of Conway at this point. Unfortunately the truck couldn’t leave the boat, so the team decided to just grab the antiques and walk from there. And that’s how the fourth act finally ended.

ACT 5

Finally, the fifth and last act. This was the one released in January 2020.

The intermission took place in a very small TV station broadcast hut that barely had room for the crew and a camera. The rain outside evolved into a deafening thunderstorm – so bad that it started dripping from the roof. The gameplay was an unusual departure from fixed hotspots to a moving hotspot cursor that changed its context as I moved it past the background.

Two guys were trying to fix a radio, a crow was sitting near some equipment with a monitor, and a couple of NPC were being interviewed live. The power went and came back.

The intermission was indeed interesting, although perhaps again slightly too long.

The fifth act itself, however, was nowhere near as long as the previous two acts and also quite unique. It took place in a village flooded after the thunderstorm last night. I was in control of a black cat and could circle around in the rotating area. Some huts and houses were totally FUBAR and there were ghosts walking around. The TV station was there too, with one end smashed to smithereens.

Conway was never seen in this last act so he was indeed leaving the game as he was abducted by skeletons in the previous one. It probably isn’t the wildest guess to assume it was a metaphor for his own death.

The remaining team members as well as the surviving villagers were seen in new spots as I rotated the flooded village. Usually a few had a conversion and as a cat I could only click on an icon for a meow as a comment. There was a big hole in the middle which I assume was the boardwalk spiral the team came up from. The cat could meow down here for echo effects to begin with, but not walk down there.

In the north side of town a strange white template of a house had emerged, and the team decided this was the final delivery address for the antiques. More furniture was brought in here as I returned.

There was also a small hangar with an old guy working on a small aircraft that barely had two wings and a motor. Later he tried to drive it down a very short runway, but it never left the ground.

In the meantime, while I was checking out stuff with the cat, a hole was being dug for two dead horses. The act ended with everybody having a ceremony by a barn for these horses. One woman recited a poem and Junebug sang a lovely song all by herself. The song attracted all the ghosts in the village and so the barn was soon flooded with quite the impressive audience.

The white template house was also done and now had stage with someone playing the guitar. That’s where the act faded out and ended. It was actually a tranquil act with relaxing gameplay. I liked it.

If I had to criticize anything about this unique adventure game, it would be that it was sometimes more telling than showing. The third and fourth act also felt a bit too long, probably because of the many story-building background descriptions that wasn’t relevant to the story. Especially these descriptions were so prevalent in those acts that I decided to bump down the rating one notch.

Some voice acting for the characters might also have been nice.

8/10

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