Kentucky Route Zero is a narrative adventure game that describes itself as “magical realist” - it’s a story about a secret highway underneath Kentucky, which takes its travelers to some weird and wonderful places. In it, you play a delivery driver for an old antiques store making his last delivery, to a place that is only accessible by traveling along The Zero, which takes you on a wondrous and surreal adventure.
It’s kind of strange for me to be sitting down to write out this review. Kentucky Route Zero is a game that ran a successful Kickstarter almost nine years ago. The first act of the game was released almost seven years ago, in 2013, with a second act following a few months later. The wait between acts grew exponentially longer (although developer Cardboard Computer did release small, free interstitial games between acts). Now it’s 2020 and the journey of Conway, Shannon and Blue (depending on what you decide to name your dog) is finally coming to a close, complete with the game being released in its entirety on Xbox One in the form of the TV Edition.
What makes this a strange experience is in thinking back to the points in my life that I played this game. Sure, I replayed each act in anticipation of the release of the final chapter, but with each episode released over such a long period of time, it’s hard not find my own journey through life wrapped up in specific moments of Kentucky Route Zero’s different chapters. Even 2016, the year that Act IV was released, feels like a lifetime ago. Yet I have vivid memories of the time I sat down to play Kentucky Route Zero at various points of my life.
The reason that this game conjures such nostalgia is simply because it’s utterly spellbinding. It opens with Conway and Blue arriving at a gas station, looking for directions to 5 Dogman Drive. There they help out the gas station owner turn the power back on in exchange for information, heading into the basement to find a group of people playing some sort of tabletop RPG set on the Zero, who don’t acknowledge your presence and disappear into thin air.
This is just a small taste of the surrealism of Kentucky Route Zero. There are far stranger sights awaiting Conway on his final delivery. The game is powered by dream logic - no matter how bizarre the things you come across, it’s all treated as perfectly normal by everyone involved. Sometimes this is majestic, sometimes this is calming and sometimes this is unnerving. I almost included examples of each, but really, you deserve to go into Kentucky Route Zero as blind as possible. So I’ll abstain from spoilers as much as possible. I don’t think the bears on the third floor would appreciate them.
Despite constantly brushing up against the bizarre as you go on, the game itself is fairly straightforward. You spend your time switching between walking, talking and navigating the roads of Kentucky by various means. On the map, which is reminiscent of an early version of Google Maps, you’re (mostly) represented by a wheel. You (mostly) drive around, following directions to your various destinations. There’s plenty to see off the beaten path, though these events mostly take the form of a kind of choose your own adventure type of gameplay.
Elsewhere you’re playing a fairly standard adventure game. You engage other characters in conversation, making the occasional choice here and there, though these are more about finding out who you are as a person than necessarily shaping the story in any way.
There are no puzzles to solve or enemies to combat. As is probably appropriate, given that you’re taking on the role of a driver on the open road, Kentucky Route Zero is all about the journey. Each act can be finished in a relatively short amount of time, unless you go off exploring (and even then, they’re not particularly long).
But this is a world that you’ll be happy to get lost in. No pun intended. This magical version of Kentucky that’s open for you to explore is a true wonder to behold, filled with real beauty in amongst its bizarre moments. Much like the excellent characters that you meet along the way, you’ll very quickly just start rolling with the weirdness. Even at the height of its absurdity, in fact usually because of it, this is an incredibly profound experience. Every step you take is filled with meaning and I absolutely adored every moment.
Kentucky Route Zero is a tremendous experience. It’s definitely one of the most surreal games I’ve ever played, but it’s this fascination with the bizarre that is absolutely one of its biggest strengths. Moving from location to location along the Zero is a journey that is filled with wonder. It’s a game that’s almost intoxicating, with a gripping atmosphere - equal parts moving, breathtaking and unnerving. It may have taken a long journey to being complete, but the wait has been well worth it.
Final Score: 9/10