Kentucky Route Zero is a very strange game. The 1-3 hour duration of episode 1, of a planned 5, is filled with conundrums, not the least of which is the one I face writing this review. See, I did not have a particularly enjoyable experience with the game, but I still think it’s worth experiencing. That is both the greatest strength and greatest weakness of Kentucky Route Zero: it unapologetically goes out on a limb with no regard for following trends. However, as with anything avant-garde, it has limited appeal, may be criticized as “all style/no substance pretentiousness,” and will probably only be truly appreciated weeks, months, or even years down the road. With this in mind, I will attempt to put my experience with Kentucky Route Zero into words.
The game’s aesthetics are probably the least challenging aspect for me to write about. There is nothing technically marvelous about the game, but its sense of style is unmistakable and often unsettling. The use of dreary colors (greys, blacks, some browns) give players a disconcerting feeling in much the same way the color palette in the anime series Boogiepop Phantom does. I truly felt like I was in the eerie middle-of-nowhere boondocks and wanted to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible. The use of basic shapes in an artistic way, such as multiple squares being used for leaves in the treetops, only heightened the surreal nature of the desolate setting. The sparse use of noise-based music only punctuates these feelings, and the brief moment featuring a bluegrass song (with vocals) gave me a similar feeling of dread like the movie Deliverance did. I wanted to fast forward through that scene and move on because it was so disquieting.
This emotional flashpoint is where each player’s experience will vary. Some folks, like me, will want to blow through the game quickly because if a place unsettles you, you want to just drop everything and run off. But others may be compelled by the surreal creepiness and want to slowly take their time, explore every little nook and cranny, and let the shadows slowly envelop them like tar. The gameplay itself is pretty minimal. For all intents and purposes, the game is a visual novel under the veil of a classic point-and-click game with a rudimentary interface. There are no puzzles, really, to speak of and some dialogue choices don’t seem to make much of a difference in the story’s progression. However, that sense of interaction is good because subtle secrets can be revealed by saying Y instead of X. The game leaves off with more questions than answers no matter what, but it does make you ponder what questions you want answered and which are best left unanswered.
So what is the game about? It starts off with the simple premise of an antiques dealer making a delivery in rural Kentucky. He stops off at a gas station to ask for directions and that’s when things start getting really weird. The address he needs to drive to does not seem to exist and the only way to get there is via Route Zero– a highway only accessible through an abandoned mine shaft. Is Route Zero real or merely an urban legend? Is there some kind of Village of the Damned phenomenon happening among the sparse population of this area that’s sending the antiques dealer running around in circles on a wild goose chase that could potentially kill him? Is there some kind of closely guarded “I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you” secret being harbored by the strange inhabitants of this strange place? I’m left with more questions than answers and wholly unable to make heads or tails of this brief, but draining, experience.
I will end my review the same way I started it: Kentucky Route Zero is a very strange game. Although I did not enjoy it very much, I can see how it is a compelling piece of software. It is very artsy, very avant-garde, very surreal, and a very acquired taste. I did not acquire the taste for this game, sadly. Maybe a long time from now, I will. Or maybe I won’t. Regardless, I am glad to have played it because it left me in an emotional limbo I haven’t felt in any other game, and that is why I recommend at least trying Kentucky Route Zero, even if you decide not to pursue it further.