An unlikely association drilled itself into my brain as I played through the first episode of Cardboard Computer’s promising game Kentucky Route Zero, which made headlines recently by nabbing four Independent Game Festival nominations. I kept thinking about Silent Hill, not because there are gore-smattered faceless nurses around every corner, prepared to beat you to death with lead pipes. The similarities arose in the combination of eeriness and isolation in each game.
Both manage to instill the player with an almost overwhelming sense of loneliness, even when they’re with NPCs. Silent Hill does this by creating horrific, predatory beasts that are often symbolic of the protagonist’s psychosis (at least in Silent Hill 2) – an interesting Jacob’s Ladder-esque twist on conventional horror.
Kentucky Route Zero has no monsters and no physically manifested ones at least. You play as an antique store delivery man named Coway who must reach Kentucky Route Zero which, unfortunately for Conway, is located in a cavern beneath the roads of Kentucky. Conway starts out with only a lovable old pooch named Homer at his side and a need for directions. What follows is a short first Act (40 minutes tops) of an incredibly surreal and promising journey through a mostly deserted world. You do run into the occasional character: a sagely gas station owner, mysterious basement dwellers and a girl obsessed with television sets, but there’s a pervasive sense of loneliness in all those conversations that’s created by the self-centered, sometimes confessional nature of each character’s dialogue. It often felt as though I was walking among the souls of the dead in some sort of beautiful purgatory, a specter myself. Of course, that could be complete jabberwocky and way off base from what creators Jake Elliot and Tamas Kemenczy intended to convey. But Zero is the sort of game that can’t help but invite a myriad of interpretations; a quality that will thrill many gamers, while aggravating others.
But no more. To say another word about the story would risk spoiling the first leg of this adventure for newcomers, since—even more than The Walking Dead and Journey, gameplay takes a backseat to story here. There are no mini-games or headache inducing puzzles. You click where you want Conway to go, occasionally interact with objects and engage in conversations that have branching dialogue options. But those branches, at least during my two playthroughs, didn’t result in any massive changes in the game’s story. Instead, each option provides the player with more of the game’s sometimes quirky, sometimes tragically introspective writing, which is really the highlight of Kentucky Route Zero anyway.
Well, at least one of them. The attention grabber for this game is clearly the visuals. Kentucky Route Zero is one good looking game and not only is it pretty, it’s uniquely pretty. There hasn’t been a game that’s had something resembling this particular aesthetic style since Delphine Software’s 1991 platformer classic Another World. Zero deserves a higher praise than that comparison gives it though, and a single screenshot won’t do the game justice either. The animation is simply incredible: the fluidity of Conway’s stride, Homer’s loveable droop and the magical realism tinged scene transitions altogether form a compelling spectacle that more than warrants a single playthrough.
The sound design, while not quite as meritorious as the writing and visuals, does its job in enriching the game’s lonely atmosphere by effectively emphasizing certain elements, like Conway’s footsteps or even the rumble of a van’s engine. There’s also a great little audible surprise that will throw players for a loop.
Gamers who crave excitement and visceral action should be aware that this is a deliberately slow-paced game. You’re meant to take in the haunting landscape and the beauty of the melancholy prose, which might annoy those that need an action fix. The abrupt, perplexing ending might also frustrate some – I had to do a Google search to make sure that my game had ended and that the application had not, in fact, crashed. But take the plunge anyway. This is a game that should be experienced anyone who’s interested in seeing the storytelling potential of this medium. The whole game is also available for sale right now, with the four other episodes/acts being released over “the next year or so.”
- Reviewed On