What a long, strange trip it has been for developer Cardboard Computer. The small studio burst onto the scene in 2013 with the first episode of Kentucky Route Zero. With it’s absorbing dialogue and stylish direction, the surreal adventure instantly drew critical praise. However, the hype began to ebb and flow as the wait between acts grew longer and longer. Now almost four years after the penultimate chapter, and seven since the story first began, the tale has finally reached a conclusion with the release of Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition.
To even attempt to explain the plot of Kentucky Route Zero feels like a fool’s errand. Not necessarily because it’s impossible, but rather it just feels illogical. It’s something that you need to experience on your own because you are often shaping it as you see fit. To give a brief (and purposefully vague) description, though, it’s about a group of people coming together to complete one last delivery. Weary truck drive Conway has one final antiques delivery to make, but in order to do so, he’ll need to traverse the Zero: a seemingly mythical stretch of highway that’s as strange as it is difficult to find. Along the way, a group of surprising allies, such as Marquez, the TV repairwoman, and Junebug & Johnny, a pair of musicians, tag along for the ride. The destination is not as important as the journey, though.
At nearly every turn, Kentucky Route Zero is a strange, almost lethal dose of magical realism that could be unbearable in lesser hands. The team at Cardboard Computer knew what they were doing, though — as bizarre as the story can get, there’s almost always a real, beating heart underneath it all. Story beats and moments make you reflect on the choices you have made, or perhaps more poignantly, the ones you didn’t make. I often found myself either relating to the musings of one of the characters, or to a description of the road being traveled. It feels very real at times, even if there are still fantastical elements hanging around.
It’s not just the content that makes the story so engaging, though. How it’s told goes a long way towards making it as memorable and captivating as it is. Spread out over five different acts, and four intermission pieces, the plot is almost constantly shifting perspective on you. Characters and places can be introduced in one segment, but not become a full part of the story until the following one. Perspective even changes from conversation to conversation. You may start out as one character but soon switch to another mid-dialogue. This gives you ample opportunity to shift the narrative as you see fit. There’s no punishment for choosing a “wrong” bit of dialogue, so you’re free to focus on what you want to.
Kentucky Route Zero is largely built around these back and forth segments. That’s where the developers focused the bulk of their efforts, which unfortunately means that what you’re doing outside of that is fairly unremarkable. There’s a good amount of walking around the various stops the delivery truck makes — at a gas station, a soulless corporation, a cave, and so on. There’s little difficulty in it, but it does get tedious, particularly in the game’s second act. I get that part of that tedium is the point, but that doesn’t make it any less of a hassle. The times spent in the truck are the most enjoyable — it’s fun to just travel around and seek out various landmarks on the road. They add another layer of strangeness to the world.
In between these moments, there are other, more abstract gameplay segments. One section sees you taking over the conversation between two unseen characters as they watch footage of Marquez taking a test, while another one has you attempting to finish piecing together a very tedious computer program. Much like the storyline, there are plenty of curveballs and segments you won’t see coming. Unlike the story, though, which continues to interest, these segments kind of just putter along. Ultimately, the story and dialogue are strong enough to carry you through these moments, but it’s hard to deny that they drag.
It doesn’t help that Act V is built entirely around one annoying gimmick. I’m not going to spoil it here, but suffice to say, I did not see it coming. It’s entirely unexpected, which you would expect to be interesting. The further you get into it, though, the more tedious it begins to get. By the end of it, I was just trying to get through it as quickly as possible, which is not something I can say for the other acts. This is saying something because, again, I think the story is incredibly strong. The ending chapter still strikes the right balance of melancholy the story deserved — I just wish it was enjoyable to play through.
Kentucky Route Zero‘s visuals could be described as minimalist, but they’re also rather beautiful. The character designs lack detail, but they still manage to be memorable and full of personality. Conway has the look and gait of a beaten-down man, while Junebug and Johnny’s style is appropriately eclectic. It’s the locations you travel to that really stun, however. They manage to feel both familiar and alien at the same time — like a place you have driven by on the road, but slightly off-kilter. I’m also a big fan of the soundtrack, which perfectly matches the game’s tone. Arguably, the most memorable moment in the entire game is built around music, as you compile a song based around dialogue choices. It’s a beautiful, aching piece that will captivate you.
After a very extended wait, Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition was ultimately worth it. It tells a compelling story that oscillates between utterly confounding and beautifully captivating. It boasts a memorable cast of characters, and it’s an experience you’ll want to see through to the end. It’s just unfortunate that even for a genre not known for strong gameplay, this five-act tale really struggles in that department. The gimmicks are unique, but that doesn’t mean they are enjoyable. The idea of what a game is has continued to evolve over time, and this is another title that continues to challenge our preconceived notions of what the medium is (and isn’t). For the traditional audience, though, it may be too off-kilter to enjoy.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the title. A copy was provided by Annapurna Interactive.
Although its moment to moment gameplay might not always hit the mark , the captivating story and colorful cast of characters make Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition a journey worth taking.