Kentucky Route Zero is quite the odd little video game. It's both a charming, nostalgia inducing point 'n' clicker -- and a Lynchian nightmare complete with crazy characters and esoteric dialogue. After beating the first of five planned acts, I was left feeling like a stranger had entered my house, started making an omelet in my kitchen, and then looked at me as if to say "Why aren't you chopping the onions"?
Our Kentuckian adventure opens on a gas station nestled beneath a giant horse head, just off the highway. A softly-purring truck rolls in, carrying with it our protagonist Conway; a delivery man in desperate need of directions to a place named Dogwood Drive. After striking up a conversation with the gas station attendant, Conway learns that the only way to reach his destination is by taking the ever so mysterious Route Zero. What follows is an hour or so of deliciously disorientating storytelling, as Conway attempts to piece together the clues to finding the seemingly non-existent highway.
Kentucky Route Zero's gameplay is pretty much what you'd expect from a modern day point and click adventure -- think Telltales' The Walking Dead and you're on the right track. Clicking and holding the left mouse button will move Conway in the desired direction, while interactive objects and characters are clearly highlighted allowing for a better paced, more story focused adventure. Puzzles are infrequent and rarely stray beyond finding the right object to progress the storyline, this is a game less about fuming over cryptic conundrums, and more about kicking back and letting the atmosphere wash over you.
And it is incredibly atmospheric. The blocky, nondescript character models juxtaposed with beautiful, pre-rendered backgrounds call to mind old favourites like Flashback and Another World. This combined with the more-moving-than-expected blue grass score, help create a very unique look and feel that only adds to the dreamlike quality of the experience.
Writing is fantastic throughout, with the game only occasionally dipping a toe in the sea of pretentiousness. Characters are well rounded and likable and just enough is explained to the player that they won't feel utterly alienated by the plot. There are also a number side stories hidden throughout the map which play out like old-school text adventures. One particularly spine-tingling example involves Conway stumbling upon a church and..... Well, I won't spoil it for you.
One of Kentucky Route Zero's more interesting features, is the way in which it deals with player choices. Throughout the game, characters will often question Conway about his past. In these situations, we're asked to fill in the blanks by selecting one of multiple answers. Is Conway's pet dog a boy or a girl? Does he have a good relationship with his employer? These small details may seem inconsequential, but they go a long way in fleshing out the character. And while I don't expect to see anything on par The Walking Dead's finale, I think it's safe to assume that our decisions will have some small impact on later acts.
The first act lasts little more than an hour, and that's including time spent exploring the fairly large map. Assuming that each subsequent act can at least match that; you're looking at a five to six hour game. That really isn't too great considering the fairly high price tag of twenty-three euros for the 'Season Pass'. If you are a fan of this kind of game and you've played and enjoyed the likes of Machinarium and Botanicula, then I would say go ahead and pick this up. If you are unsure, then I'd advise waiting until the next time it's on sale, or at least until a few more acts arrive and we can better judge the quality as a whole.
As for now though, I am genuinely excited for the future of Kentucky Route Zero. I believe it's a mystery worth investing in, and while stories like this have a tendency to conclude with the old "Oh I was the bad one all along" cliche -- I have high hopes that it will stick to its guns and deliver an ending that old Lynchy-boy himself would be proud of.