Review: Kentucky Route Zero Act 1

Junch checks out a quiet, moving and beautifully crafted game called Kentucky Route Zero.  Read on to find out what he thought of this poetic point-and-click adventure.

There is a kooky and yet wistful aesthetic at work with the whole flat, paper-like characters and environments juxtaposed against a 3D plane.  And the lighting works to perpetuate a bleak noir and yet not unhappy mood.  When you click anywhere to move your little animated paper-craft dude in bomber jacket, a ghostly horseshoe is thrown against a stake.  And although everything seems flat against your screen, there is a depth of fore and background for your character to explore. That’s really cool.

But really, the best part about the game is the writing:

“A moving truck rumbles softly to itself…”

“… careless with tragic ideas…”

“An old dog in a straw hat.  Both have seen better days.”

The writing in this game is poetic, rhythmic and lyrical and just such a joy to read for the craft of it, not just to progress the game.  It is a great sign when a game makes you want to slow right down, eager to drink in the sliver of texts that describe the surroundings with such poignancy.

But how is it as a game?

The premise is this: you’re on a truck delivery job to the titular Kentucky Route Zero.  A route that can strike up mystery with its odd name alone.  But all the characters you encounter seem to know something, and yet don’t particularly have anything more to say about it other than how you might get there.  What transpires next is a journey to strange places to meet more strange people who continually strike you as knowing more than they are letting on, but are perpetuating enough of a mystery to propel you along.

There are many brilliant, quiet magic realism moments that will surprise you at every turn.  Which game has you accessing files in a computer by crafting the stanzas of a poem as a password?  Which game has a bluegrass band that plays original, haunting music in the background at one point, not in the scene with you but in a fourth-wall breaking manner?  Or when you come across a group of people in a basement early in the game only to suddenly have them disappear the minute you turn off the light.

In the interest of getting you to play the game, I have to share some of these arresting moments, but there are more surprises I’m biting my tongue to stop myself from spoiling.  For a short half an hour first episode, it is an incredibly densely packed game.  They’ve even designed a dialogue choice mechanic to give the player some agency, and the developers have stated that your dialogue choices carry over in subtle ways to the following episodes.  It isn’t Walking Dead-level of choice and consequence, but it is nice to know there will be some interesting variations that could play out in each playthrough.  The puzzles aren’t mind-breaking challenges, more in service of gently propelling the plot forward.  I like games like that.

Kentucky Route Zero is a beautiful game about fragility, memory and loss.  If you want to try something different in between your explosive manshooters and glossy triple-A adventures, this could be worth your time.  $7 for a single episode and $25 for the whole five episode series (the rest to come down the road). Just take a look at the presentation of their website too, purdy.

Watch the trailer below:

Talky talk

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