Kentucky Route Zero Review

Kentucky Route Zero, developed by Cardboard Computer, is an episodic adventure game that draws players in with its aesthetic qualities. The first act paints striking visuals to create an immensely stylish world, all while surrounding you with a lush audio palette, but the real glue that holds this all together is a mysteriously woven narrative.

You immediately get a sense of place  in Kentucky Route Zero. Its layered visuals are a riveting collage of vector art, with each layer adjusting to the position of the player and the world’s lighting. It is as if the world Conrad inhabits is a living, breathing pop-up book, brimming with character and depth. Sometimes, it can be hard to appreciate the level of detail that Cardboard Computer has poured into the scenery and characters, but every now and then, the camera zooms in, revealing a wide exhibit of  gorgeous details that were hidden at a distance.

Kentucky Route Zero pairs this strikingly designed setting with a collection of ambient music and environmental sound effects. Warm, mysterious audio textures surround you: owls hoot in the distance, pipes whine and hiss, and ambient tunes hum in your ears. It’s a subtle compilation of effects that is as relaxing as it is beautiful, and it’s trance-inducing in nature. Like the game’s visual world, it envelops you.

The developers varnish this rich world with a thick glaze of mystery, one that lends itself to subtle, supernatural elements. The game’s characters exhibit an air of easiness that formulates in melancholic dialogue, often resonating nostalgically with themselves. It all feels poetic rather than prosaic.  While the initial length of Kentucky Route Zero is short, it’s still able to build interesting and enigmatic characters. They often feel distant,  but simplistic human touches help them seem believable. The developing narrative between these characters is another component that effortlessly pulls you into Kentucky Route Zero, and I believe it will play a major role in encouraging the player to reach its conclusion.

The dialogue relies on you to make branching conversation decisions that form the characters’ pasts, not just their presents.  At times, you may find yourself not only choosing a question to ask a certain character, but also choosing the response, continuously switching shoes mid-conversation. In a sense, you create the conversation and the backstories that go with it. It is an interesting take on character building, and I can quite honestly say that I’ve never experienced anything like it before. It will be interesting to see how these decisions help flesh out the characters in future acts, and also the relationships between them. As of now, I don’t know if this aspect is a purely narrative novelty, or if will affect the story in greater depth.

While Kentucky Route Zero’s strengths are easy to admire, its weaknesses are not a matter of what is there, or what doesn’t work. It’s a matter of what isn’t there at all: gameplay. The game consists of leisurely paced exploration, sometimes asking you to backtrack, and it’s completely devoid of meaningful puzzles and action. It won’t be for everyone, but at least it doesn’t rely on stale gameplay tropes of other adventure titles. But still, it would have been nice to see this uniquely designed world paired with equally distinguishable gameplay ideas.

Luckily for Kentucky Route Zero, adventure games are dependent on discovery and intrigue, not the puzzles themselves.  These aspects, for the most part, excuse Route Zero’s lack of traditional gameplay. Fortunately, the people over at Cardboard Computer have successfully created a solid foundation built from compelling story elements and aesthetic design decisions that will encourage players to continue on Conrad’s journey through future episodes.

Act I of Kentucky Route Zero is available on Mac and PC. Cardboard Computer plans to release the remaining acts over the course of 2013. After a successful Greenlight campaign, the game will be released on Steam.