An Otherworldly Road Trip
HIGH An wonderfully atmospheric game with an incredible soundtrack.
LOW Issues with the cursor. The late game plot slowdown.
WTF The distillery section is extremely jarring.
Kentucky Route Zero (KRZ) was always something of an enigma to me ever since I first saw it. It seemed like it had Twin Peaks vibes, and I expected it to be silly and whimsical, much like Disco Elysium. However, what I discovered was a mesmerizing, haunting, and bizarre adventure centered around the theme of abandonment. It was like exploring an old, decrepit building in search of the stories it can still tell.
KRZ is an abstract point-and-click adventure, with some choices that can alter the conversations, but never derail the central plot. Throughout the course of his work as a deliveryman, main character Conway picks up several new companions who will each step into the narrative spotlight from time to time. Conway himself is world-weary, Shannon approaches worried and pragmatic, Ezra is a curious and precocious child, and Junebug is caring, but with an artist’s rebellious streak. Each character that travels with Conway adds a unique and personal voice to each part of the story.
The plot starts off with Conway carrying out his final delivery before retirement. Before long, the mundane task turns into a full-blown mission that blends sci-fi with the supernatural. The campaign is split into five acts, with narrative segments in between, and each part of the tale deals with some aspect of abandonment. One might assume this theme would create a dreary atmosphere, but the mysteries and turns it took kept me curious for more.
While on the topic of mysteries, KRZ does have plot elements that are never fully resolved, but that ties well with the overarching theme — life doesn’t always offer closure, and people have to either reflect on what could’ve been, do what they can with the pieces left behind, or simply move on. The cast of KRZ all try to make sense of the events they go through, what their futures are, and what they leave behind. There is hope, but also a great deal of grief, despair, and an underlying sense of aimlessness.
The story is also filled with many striking visuals and wonderful musical numbers. The aesthetic style is fairly simple, but with a pleasing, almost papercraft, feeling to it, along with some vector-style graphics throughout the travel segments. It almost felt as though I was playing a long-forgotten game from the ’70s.
One particular point where the visuals come together with the audio was during the middle of Act III. At one point, Junebug sings with lyrics that the player chooses. Her generally plain outfit changes into a majestic dress, and the ceiling peeled itself away to reveal a sky with shooting stars. This created a beautiful scene where I was briefly taken away from KRZ‘s hopelessness, if just for a moment. I had to take a moment to sit back and simply take it in.
While the visuals and music contribute to KRZ‘s strongest suit, the atmosphere, that isn’t to say that there aren’t some issues.
KRZ’s biggest problem is that the cursor sometimes doesn’t highlight what it should, and that’s key in a point-and-click like this. For example, an object close to the player would not be highlighted, and instead an exit or another object on the other side of the screen would be highlighted. One wrong click, and that would waste time as my character would move to that part, or even sometimes exit back to the previous screen.
There are also parts where the story does meander a bit, and the action slows a bit too much. In the last act, and in some of the post-act vignettes, the narrative comes to a near-crawl — the ‘epilogue’ is a lengthy ten minute unskippable text segment. Act V also has some issues with helping players understand what is moving the plot forward. In one instance, I was not aware that I was supposed to be letting some conversations play out while I was exploring.
All of this said, however, Kentucky Route Zero is an absolutely amazing adventure that is packed with personality, and bolstered by stunning visuals and music. Some long-in-the-tooth plot segments slightly diminished my enjoyment, but the story always remained moving and intriguing.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
— Justin Grandfield
Disclosures: This game is developed by Cardboard Computer and published by Annapurna Interactive. It is currently available on Switch, PS4/5, mobile, XBO/S/X and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher, and reviewed on PS5. Approximately 11 hours were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There is a “multiplayer” mode, but the option is listed as just passing the controller to someone else.
Parents: This game has an ESRB rating of T for Language and Use of Drugs. The ESRB rating summary contains the following information: “This an adventure game in which players follow a story about a secret highway running through underground caves in Kentucky. Players explore a variety of environments while engaging in dialogue with other characters. One scene depicts a doctor administering an anesthetic drug (Neurypnol) on player’s character; the screen/text blurs and distorts from the effects of the fictional drug. The dialogue references painkillers and pills (e.g., “…unless you’re planning to sell painkillers on the side…”; “She offered to share the pills…I didn’t want to stop taking them.”). The word “sh*t” appears in dialogue.”
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: The game offers subtitles and closed captioning. (See examples above.) The text size can be changed significantly, but will affect all text on screen. It is strongly recommended to put on captions, as some of the musical numbers’ lyrics are only visible when this option is selected. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.