Review

Kentucky Route Zero

The Road Not Taken

In its second act, Kentucky Route Zero delights in straying from the beaten path.

By Ryan Smith • June 12, 2013

This review is concerned only with the second episode of Kentucky Route Zero. For an overview of the game’s tone and style of adventuring, see Ryan’s review of Act I.

We think of roads as conduits for travel—the purgatory between where we’ve been and where we’re going. That’s why speed limits exist on highways, to prevent us from killing ourselves with speeding vehicles in our desperate hurry to get from Point A to Point B. When we play video games, we’re often on a linear path in a similar race to reach the predetermined ending. That’s why story-based games are often designed to reward players in some tangible way for divergence. The carrot we’re offered for wandering off the beaten path might be an opportunity to gain new powers or treasures, or a piece of information that fleshes out the world or characters in some meaningful way.

But after playing through Act II of Kentucky Route Zero, it’s clear that Cardboard Computer is only feigning interest in taking us quickly to an ultimate destination. The eponymous secret highway exists mostly as an excuse to send us to strange and surreal yet ordinary places that meander away from anything involving a central plot and purpose. It’s discovery for its own sake.

Kentucky Route Zero

The detour that begins Act II, however, borders on tedious. When we last left the antique delivery driver Conway at the end of Act I, he’d just spied the entrance to Route Zero. Instead of picking up the action there, though, we’re fast-forwarded to a place called the Bureau Of Reclaimed Spaces—which appropriately enough is an office building built into an old cathedral. After a short scene from the perspective of an artist-turned-administrative clerk in the Bureau, the game jumps back to the newly arrived Conway and Shannon, who are still figuring out how to reach the mysterious residence at 5 Dogwood Drive. To determine their next lead, they have to wade through red tape at the Bureau. Yet even in a soul-crushing corporate office there are intriguing dalliances, like an entire floor devoted to a group of docile bears.

Act II fully finds its footing again when it leaves the Bureau and heads off to other points of interest like a museum that’s not what it seems and a massive storage space that became a church. The theme running through all of them is the idea of reclaimed spaces—buildings that have been repurposed because of economics, government overreach, and—the game hints’possibly something more sinister.

Kentucky Route Zero

Without giving away the ending of Act II, the final dreamlike scene through a forest is one of beauty and wonder both in art and atmospherics. It raises more questions instead of providing answers about the nature of this magical highway and the people in it, but that’s what I’m coming to expect from Kentucky Route Zero.

“You have to be more deliberate when driving on the Zero than on most surface roads, and in a way, much less deliberate,” says a front desk clerk to Conway. It’s a line that also speaks volumes about how this game prefers to be played: Purposely without purpose.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act II
Developer: Cardboard Computer (Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy)
Publisher: Self-published
Platforms: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: PC
Price: $7 for first episode; $25 to pre-order all five episodes

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  • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

    God, this game is so good.

    MEGA SPOILERS: When Julian swept everyone away at the museum, I audibly yelled “What the fuck?” at my computer.

    It’s interesting how this Act seems to be about reclaimed spaces, but I think it goes even deeper than that. When you look at a place on a map or from afar, it isn’t much more than a location. But when you actually inhabit and explore the space that a place occupies, you get a sense for its history, and, for lack of a better word, its vibe. Act II drives this point home by putting the player in spaces whose current purposes – determined by bureaucrats who have never inhabited the spaces – are at odds with their vibes. The player gets the sense that there’s something not quite right about these spaces, and that feeling remains until the final scene in the woods, when space and purpose are finally in harmony.

    I think that’s why the game has Lula going through the various repurposing proposals at the start of the Act – to show that what seem like perfectly reasonable repurposing decisions when you’re examining them dispassionately are actually quite strange when you step into the spaces in question.

    • Effigy_Power

      It seems only right that Merve has the first comment about this. He’s been advocating for KRZ forever. :)

  • dreadguacamole

    I haven’t played this chapter yet (I lost my savegame from the first one somehow when the game transitioned to Steam), but this is one of the most enthralling games I’ve played in a very long time. Everything about it is wonderful – the writing, ambiance, audio design, graphics… I really hope they manage to keep the level of quality over from the first part.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      I’m playing through Humble Bundle, rather than Steam, but I suspect I’m going to have to re-play Act I anyway, as it made me redownload Acts I and II as a set, rather than just download and add Act II to my installation of act I.

      HOWEVER, I was kind of planning on re-playing I anyway, to get myself in the proper headspace for Act II.

  • Fluka

    *Quickly and successfully scrolls past many mega-spoilers!*

    Craaaaaap.  I guess I really should get around to playing this.  Particularly since it’s already purchased and on my computer.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      Play it. Play it now.

  • Cloks

    I’ve played through maybe half of this Act and I’m loath to finish it. It’s not because of any quality reasons – I love the game and I’ve been waiting for the second Act for months – but I’m a little afraid to let this act end. It seems much shorter than the first and I’d hate to finish it so quickly and have to wait another few months for the story continuation. I’ve been loving what I’ve played through so far though as this game is excellent magical realism in a way that few other video games are.

    So, Spoilers I guess, but there’s a file found with the save-game that details what choices are being kept track of by the game. It’s interesting in that some of the stuff is just absolutely minor and hints at large chunks of the game that I feel I may have missed. I wouldn’t encourage checking it out unless you absolutely need to spoil some of the game for yourself as it hints at what may be referenced in the upcoming acts.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      @zerocrates:disqus and I went through our respective save files, and we found out that there’s a significant character in his playthrough whom I’ve never even met in mine.

      • Cloks

        I try and play the game honestly – I don’t look through information that I haven’t been given access to, don’t lie and give concise accurate answers. I might replay it as a different sort of character though because I feel like I’ve really limited myself in the current incarnation.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          Yeah, I definitely play the game honestly too. I’ve tried my best to keep Conway and Shannon as honest as possible, and I don’t look at information I’m not supposed to have. The only reason I looked through the save file was because @zerocrates:disqus and I were talking about the game after we had completed Act II, and he mentioned a character I hadn’t heard of. So we went through our save files to figure out what was going on. But I have no desire to go back through Act I to try to meet this character. As far as I’m concerned, he never existed.

        • zerocrates

          I’m not sure how many opportunities the game actually gives you to “lie,” especially early on, but that’s part and parcel of its generally confusing and off-the-beaten-path nature.

  • CrabNaga

    What kind of an adventure game is this? Is it more of an interactive fiction, or is it closer to something we might see LucasArts make in its heyday? I’d be more interested to get it if it had good puzzles and some amount of depth. Basically I’d rather it be the Machinarium to other games’ Botanicula.

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

      There are no real “puzzles,” per se, but there are a couple of instances where you need to figure out what to do in order to advance. It’s more like point-and-click interactive fiction.

    • zerocrates

      I like to call it a point-and-click meander.

      • Sleverin

         Sounds like a visual novel.  Interactive stuff, but more about meeting characters and such.  Though this game sounds like it emphasizes exploration while visual novels tend to stick with a linear path that once you’ve made your choice, you’ve altered the story permanently.  Multiple save files ahoy!

    • dreadguacamole

      What @Merve2:disqus said – there are very few puzzles (I can only think of one), and many situations that look like puzzles are more interested in seeing what you do than on you finding a solution. There’s loads of exploration and things to discover, but gameplay-wise, if you put Botanicula in the left and Machinarium on the right, KR0 would be far to the left of Botanicula and to the right of something like Proteus.

       They’ve put out a pretty cool demo that might give you an idea of what to expect - http://kentuckyroutezero.com/limits-and-demonstrations/

  • DrZaloski

    After reading and watching the Death Reports, this is a nice way to calm down.

    I also like the part where I don’t have to pay for my internet twice.

  • Joel Rosenberg

    I haven’t played this act yet, but the first one wandered pretty deep into the “interactive novella” genre. Normally I’m not a fan of “games” that don’t require me to be there, but nonetheless  ’m glad it exists, at least to further the form and provide discussion points.

  • Joel Rosenberg

    _