Kentucky Route Zero’s fifth and final act launches on PC on January 28 alongside its TV Edition, which brings the entire story to PS4, Xbox One, and Switch. This review is taking a fresh look at Kentucky Route Zero as a whole now that all five acts are complete.
I couldn’t stop taking screenshots as I played Kentucky Route Zero. Almost every location in this surreal adventure game could be printed out and framed on the wall as a work of art all its own, but it’s the strange and twisting story that fans have been following for nearly seven years that ties them all together. That mystical story can feel appropriately mysterious at times and confusingly arbitrary at others, but it’s a heartwarming journey I’m very glad to have taken.
Kentucky Route Zero is ostensibly a point-and-click adventure game, but to call it that can be misleading. It’s only tangentially in the same realm as classics like Monkey Island or Grim Fandango, replacing item collection and puzzle solving with reams of intimate dialogue and an impressive amount of choice in how your characters navigate every conversation.
40 of My Favorite Screenshots From Kentucky Route Zero (Visual Spoilers!)
You begin Act 1 as Conway, a delivery truck driver trying to get to an address that seemingly doesn’t exist on any map, apparently only accessible through a peculiar hidden highway called the Zero. While that simple delivery goal is your motivation through Kentucky Route Zero’s five acts, Conway slowly accumulates companions along the way, each an interesting character in their own right. Their presence lets you further shape the conversations they are faced with.
Through the Eyes of Another
One of my favorite things about Kentucky Route Zero is how frequently it shakes up the way its dialogue is delivered, constantly adding to its bag of tricks. Some scenes may be straightforward conversations from a classic point-and-click side view, while others are entirely from the perspective of security guards watching your characters through security footage and discussing the scene in the past tense.
Two of my favorite scenes include an Interlude between Acts 2 and 3 where you’re watching a play from the perspective of a silent actor on stage, and another later on where you control a cat as they run around and listen to your characters’ conversations instead of moving those characters directly. Since Kentucky Route Zero is almost entirely about finding and then clicking through dialogue options, this endless creativity is a vital reason the roughly eight hours it took me to reach the credits stayed fresh.
That said, things certainly start simpler, with the creative storytelling increasing greatly as the campaign progresses. While Kentucky Route Zero was initially released episodically, I had never played any of it until now, and the age of its first acts is abundantly clear. Act 1 and 2 were released in 2013, and their presentation and structure can pale in comparison to the latter acts at – especially when played in 2020 after games like Night in the Woods, which clearly took a page out of this book. (It also doesn’t help that Conway’s leg is broken for most of both acts, causing you to move at a frustratingly slow pace.)
In a very real sense, playing Kentucky Route Zero is like taking a walk through time, each episode growing more ambitious and unexpected than the last. As a result, every act is delightfully surprising even when played back to back – fully hooking me around Act 3 when it starts diverging further from a standard point-and-click structure. Still, the charming characters and captivating writing kept me interested the whole time, broken leg and all.
RPG – Random Poetry Generator
One of the first tasks you are given in Kentucky Route Zero is to unlock a computer, but this simple activity sets the stage for what you’ll be doing essentially the entire game. The computer’s owner tells Conway the password is some poem he enters through muscle memory, comically suggesting Conway just starts typing to see what happens. No matter what lines you pick from the pre-written options, you’ll always enter the right password – that’s the basis of this entire adventure.
As you travel the Zero and hunt for your MacGuffin delivery address, you’ll constantly be picking dialogue options for your characters, not knowing the “correct” answer to any of them – as soon as you choose, your answer becomes fact and, narratively, has always been fact. These choices can be as mundane as the name of Conway’s dog (my sweet old girl was named Blue) or as deep as if a character has siblings and what the context of their relationship is to them. A particularly magical moment in Act 3 has you picking the lyrics to a gorgeous song as it’s sung back to you in real time, coupled with more beautiful visuals. It easily stands as one of my favorite scenes in a game in a long time.
The choices you make never really change the outcome of the plot, but they do drastically shift what story you’ll hear as you progress. And once your group of weary travelers grows and offers more perspectives for you to inhabit, dialogue can change even more. Instead of just choosing Conway’s responses, you can often decide which character replies – whether its Conway himself, the more forthright Shannon (your other lead protagonist and the first to join his journey), or a whimsically imaginative child named Ezra. Either option generally locks off the other responses entirely – I’m sure there’s a whole novel’s worth of dialogue I didn’t see.
By the final act, you’ll control so many people that you’re effectively just having conversations with yourself. But, somehow, Kentucky Route Zero trained me up to that point so that, miraculously, it felt entirely natural. Besides, the discussions were so often engaging and interesting that I loved picking conversation paths and marching merrily down them of my own volition – it’s the same as writing poetry for a computer password without ever knowing the “right” answer, just on a significantly more elaborate scale.
But while Kentucky Route Zero’s writing is consistently strong, the way in which it’s delivered sometimes isn’t – the biggest problem being an overabundance of exposition. I adored that this is a strange and mysterious tale that doesn’t outright explain much of its world, but then random characters you meet briefly in a gas station would abruptly launch into their life’s story in direct opposition of that style. These dumps of backstory are always well-written, just hamfistedly presented, which caused Kentucky Route Zero’s already slow and deliberate pacing to stutter at times
While Kentucky Route Zero often focuses on smaller story moments like this, the larger meat of its tale is a touching one, too. I ultimately took it as a story about home, both what home actually means and how people find it, either intentionally or unexpectedly. That theme recurs throughout without being shoved in your face, and I was fully invested in Conway and Shannon’s journey whether I tried to read deeper into it or not.
The folk that join them along the way are worth getting attached to, as well, particularly Junebug and Johnny the musical duo – who are robots, I guess? – even if how or why any of these people start following you is never really justified. A couple of the big character moments were similarly under-explained and seemed frustratingly avoidable from the perspective of an onlooker – this certainly didn’t happen often, but sometimes I wished for the level of control Kentucky Route Zero’s constant dialogue choices make it feel like you have. Without spoiling anything, a few of the threads of key characters are left unsatisfyingly hanging by the time the credits roll, too.
This isn’t really a story that wants (or even needs) to tie up all of those threads, and thankfully for the most part that works in its favor. Apart from that handful of incongruous disappointments, the end of this seven-year story was really quite lovely, leaning into many of Kentucky Route Zero’s strengths without ruining the wonder at its heart with over explanation – a fate likely worse than the smaller missteps it did make along the way.
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