Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC, Xbox One, PS4
Kentucky Route Zero is a point-and-click narrative adventure game that has been releasing in episodic form since 2013. The actual origins of the game go back even further, taking a route from an award-winning art game in 2011 through Kickstarter crowdfunding to the game's eventual form as five episodes and related gameplay interludes that were released over a span of seven years. Now Kentucky Route Zero is finally available in one complete package, called "TV Edition" on consoles.
This is a review of the full game, played through without any experience with the episodes released separately over the years. This review will avoid any major story spoilers.
Kentucky Route Zero is a game full of supernatural and eerie elements, but it tells a story that's grounded, gritty, and human. You begin by controlling a delivery driver in search of an address, and that remains the underlying fiction that drives much of the rest of the core story forward. Along the way, though, you'll encounter ghosts, giant birds, and a sprawling underground world filled with oddities to explore. Getting hung up on what's "real" isn't the right approach for a story like Kentucky Route Zero, and it's rooted firmly in the magical realism genre. Characters and events matter and make sense in terms of the ways they make us think and feel, and spending time wondering about the physics at work is missing the point.
You meet an endearing cast of characters as you play through Kentucky Route Zero, gathering folks along your delivery journey and getting glimpses into other people and places that eventually come to intersect with the core plot. The dialogue is natural, touching, and often funny. The story the game tells is powerful, and deals with serious issues like debt, family strife, aging, and abandonment, but nothing about the story ever comes across as melodramatic. At the end of its five episodes (a length which will probably take most players around 10 hours to complete), you feel like you've been on a real journey with the characters.
The story's magical elements help recontextualize some of the heavier topics, and that often manages to make the big moments feel poignant and earned, rather than heavy-handed. For example, the core theme of debt and its effects on people and communities is explored through the sale of a special liquor that actually has "debt" itself inside it, so that just drinking it is enough to have you owing part of yourself to the company that makes it. The story being told is evocative and relatable, even if the specific details are very clearly supernatural.
Kentucky Route Zero isn't a hard game. Your main interaction with it comes in two forms: guiding your characters around while clicking on things, and choosing between dialogue options. Even compared to other narrative adventure games, like the Telltale library, Kentucky Route Zero feels stripped down and basic. This is a game that isn't interested in putting obstacles between you and its narrative.
In terms of guiding your characters and interacting with the world, Kentucky Route Zero doesn't do much different from adventure games we've seen for decades. You will be prompted to interact with points in the world, with occasional creative diversions (usually coming in the between-episode interludes) that push more boundaries. In one of these interludes you can listen to an extended and amusing conversation about snakes via an automated help line, while in another you essentially take on a role in a stage play, directing your attention to the actors around you to cue their scenes.
Kentucky Route Zero is at its most experimental in the way it handles dialogue choices, which are numerous throughout the game. In every conversation you're given choices between multiple possible responses, often wildly different from one another. Someone might ask your character about a sibling growing up, and you could respond with a story about your brother, a totally different story about your sister, or say that you didn't have any siblings.
The different options allow you a feeling of freedom as Kentucky Route Zero unfolds, but the tricky thing is that most of the options don't "matter" beyond their immediate impact on your experience and how much they shape your feeling for the story going forward. Few dialogue choices are actually referenced later, and the story doesn't branch dramatically depending on whether you picked "A" or "B" at a certain moment.
Sometimes the game does reference a choice you made in the past, and these moments can be especially powerful because they are so rare - but the fact that most of your dialogue decisions are in-the-moment choices that don't ripple outwards means your enjoyment of Kentucky Route Zero is going to be largely tied into whether the story itself, as you construct it with your choices, has value to you.
It's a fascinating experiment in a game, really, and feels like a deliberate design decision, not a mistake. Kentucky Route Zero wants you to consider your options and make a choice, but the choices are meaningful on their own, because of what the options make you think and make you feel. The fictional consequences aren't the point.
Visuals and audio
Kentucky Route Zero has a persistently moody and muted visual style that fits its fictional themes. The overriding grey and brown and black tones make the rare instances of color and brightness stand out all the more. Characters don't have visible facial features in most scenes, which works well with the freely chosen dialogue options, since you can project whatever emotion would make sense in context onto the low-poly faces of the characters involved.
Music in Kentucky Route Zero is sparse but powerful, and musical interludes are some of the strongest scenes in the entire game. The soundtrack is varied, too, with both folk tunes and synthy, dreamy electronica, highlighted with more vocals than you usually get in game soundtracks. Kentucky Route Zero uses music in the same way as a well made movie, punctuating emotional moments and complementing the visuals, and listening to the songs after you play can instantly bring you back to the scenes they supported.
Playing Kentucky Route Zero on the Nintendo Switch
I'm glad I waited for the full "TV Edition" package rather than playing individual episodes as they released, since I was able to experience a more cohesive narrative without having to wait a year or more for the next episode to release.
I played most of Kentucky Route Zero on my Nintendo Switch in handheld mode, wearing headphones. In contrast to other indies that benefit from portability and bite-sized play sessions, I don't think Kentucky Route Zero is actually a great fit for handheld play. The dark colors can make details hard to see at times, and leaving the game in the middle of a specific conversation, as you'll be tempted to do when playing on a portable, can detract from the impact of that scene.
Final thoughts on Kentucky Route Zero
The biggest criticism I think you can give Kentucky Route Zero is that the "game" part of the game just isn't doing very much. It isn't bad, but it isn't much of anything, either. It's rudimentary, aside from the creative interludes, and if you don't find the appeal in selecting between dialogue options that mostly don't change the story beyond that moment, as discussed above, then there's just not much to the game to engage you. But the fantastic dialogue, endearing characters, and mysteries filling the world go a long way, and for many fans of narrative games that will be more than enough to recommend Kentucky Route Zero.
After playing through Kentucky Route Zero in its entirety, you've experienced something like a story told around a campfire that was made up on the spot. You'll have memories of it, and it was an entertaining experience. The point of it all was in the things it made you think and feel in the moment, and how it changed you afterwards.