Kentucky Route Zero: Episode 1

Kentucky Route Zero is a title that demands attention. Look at it, think about it, sound it out loud: Kentucky. Route. Zero. The strangeness inherent to this odd collection of words is strikingly appropriate for Cardboard Computer’s Kickstarter funded title. Described by its creators as a magical realist adventure, Kentucky Route Zero is a point and click adventure game backed by a level of high caliber prose normally reserved for text adventures. That said, what makes Kentucky Route Zero unique, aside from its simplistic gameplay, is the emphasis paid to its surreal narrative, mysterious world and extraordinary visual presentation. The first of five episodes, Act 1 gives players a taste of what essentially feels like an episode of “The Twilight Zone” directed by Stanley Kubrick.

Set in the highway roads of Kentucky, Act I introduces the player to Conway, an antiques deliveryman, who stops off at Equus Oils for directions to a stop located off the fabled "Kentucky Route Zero," a stretch of road people seem to know about but don’t quite know how to get there. What makes the game so fascinating is how it sets the player up for a traditional adventure game experience only to violently take it away. To find his way, the proprietor of the gas station tasks Conway with booting up a computer (carrying the directions) by switching on a breaker box that is blocked by a party of Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts lamenting over their missing twenty sided die. Just when the gameplay momentum has settled in, the whole thing takes a sudden left turn as all pretense of adventure gaming melts away leaving the player with an overwhelming realization that something deeper is at work. It’s very much like that moment in Fez when the rote task of collecting cubes eventually leads to an incredible “pulling back the curtain” moment that exposes something much more complex and deep. Kentucky Route Zero’s revelatory moment happens early on and is bolstered by a number of sequences and jarring imagery that won’t be discussed here because experiencing them for yourself is essential to the game’s power.

Kentucky Route Zero’s greatest strength is how it presents itself through the most striking visuals I’ve seen in the genre. The polygonal style and heavy line art are reminiscent of Eric Chahi’s classic Out of This World. Each in-game location offers a wide variety in color theming and tone that violently clashes with the aged and simplistic vector graphics used for the map. The most effecting graphical element are the stark black and white title cards used to introduce new scenes and locations that are highly reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Just like the film, these cards are accompanied by complete and terrible silence which only serves to heighten the uneasiness of the experience.

I realize that it’s a bit unfair to review a game as abstract as Kentucky Route Zero after playing through its first episode but after reaching the sudden and upsetting conclusion (it simply cuts to the desktop. No credits, no main menu screen. Nothing), I felt like I had to get the word out. Kentucky Route Zero is a beautiful and artistic piece of of work and I haven’t felt so strongly about a game since Silent Hill 2. After The Walking Dead made a case for powerful episodic narratives I found myself wanting something similar. I’m incredibly excited to see what the next four episodes will do.

Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.