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.
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.
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.