When one is writing about a project like Kentucky Route Zero, it’s not necessary to state that it is not a game made to please everyone. Extremely slow rhythm, cryptic plot, aesthetic appearance, near absolute lack of puzzles or challenges; all of them place it above the difficulties inherent to any graphic adventure. Who will like Kentucky Route Zero, then? Everyone who think themselves to be a bit like Conway, its main character; a lonely guy who’s driving in the middle of the night through desert highways for the sake of it, searching for a place or maybe something else, and who’d rather be lost in what he’ll find in the way than get to his destination.
t’s because of this that Kentucky Route Zero starting on a service station makes perfect sense, and it’s also because of this that it being the only predictable item in the whole development makes perfect sense as well. Just like the player, Conway will be carried along by the unfolding of a story that seems to be holding more in store that this first chapter gives away. Obviously, this being an unfinished title (let’s not forget that this is only the first chapter of five, which the title will be made of) keeps us from making any final evaluation on its plot and development; still, one must acknowledge that up to now the story is very solid, more because of the way it unfolds that because of its intrigue, as it is a bit predictable in some moments.
Settings are one of the most outstanding features of the game, beautiful and masterfully designed. According to people with better knowledge than mine, they are directly inspired by art déco so that, together with a smart use of darkness and shadows, they build up an enveloping mood that helps visualizing scenes that are not shown but implied; such as the mentioned moment of the main character driving under the stars. We didn’t hear much of the bluegrass made by The Ramblers Bedquit of which Twinsen spoke about; but it is still necessary to make a remark on the ambient sounds enfolding the game, which are able to transmit as much as majestic peace and calm as angst and claustrophobia, in a way that should be envied by many horror games. As you must have noticed by now, atmosphere is one of the key words when writing about the work of Cardboard Computer.
And then there is a magic little detail: camera transitions. It is something so simple that most of the time it goes unnoticed, but it is one of the most amazing elements we find here. But let’s not be fooled, it will only happen a handful of times; maybe it’s because of this that they will be engraved on your not-blinking sore eyes. This is what I’m talking about: a game completely made up of flat elements and shadows suddenly makes a turnaround to show you the action from a different point of view; or perspective is slightly changed so that shadows shape a different perception of what you’re looking at; or a zoom changes the silhouette of a building into its interior, and then we are yet again zoomed to see what’s beyond. Just magnificent.
On their part, sceneries are restricted to setting a certain atmosphere and provide the background and context for what’s going on. They are key elements to developing the story and yet they are barely used to create puzzles or game mechanics. In fact, it will only take us a few seconds to solve the two or three riddles we’ll find and they will always have a purpose inside the story; they are never added to create a challenge, for the sake of game mechanics or just to make the game longer.
As everything here is subject to plot development, it was expected that we would spend most of the time talking to other characters. Dialogues are well written, long, weighty, deep and full of nuances; they are one of the greatest appeals of the game. Conway is a man of few words, who will listen attentively to everything other people have to say (which is quite a lot), so he can measure out his interventions accordingly. What we choose to say will make no difference in what is going to happen; things are the way they are and they are going to happen in a certain way. Why letting us talk at all, then? Because it increases our feeling of making this our story, of making the main character more similar to us or whoever we want it to resemble. A simple instance: in a certain moment you will fall and someone will ask whether you’re ok. You can answer that you are ok or otherwise that you hurt your leg. No matter what your answer is, you have in fact been hurt and if you deny it, you will get an answer that you have been hurt and cannot even walk. Still you could have provided different answers, as different as the personalities involved in every way of acting. Obviously, this is just a simple instance of the basics that the game has to offer, but on certain moments we will have to choose motivations, backgrounds or past events for the main character (and we can foresee the same will go for other characters in upcoming chapters) It’s the in-game way in which Cardboard Computer lets us know that they are telling a story and that it is the same for every player, but each one feels and interprets it in their own fashion.
Tamas Kemenczy and Jake Elliot got in their hands a diamond in the rough and they have been polishing it really well for two years. Kentucky Route Zero is a graphic adventure that knows how to counterbalance many of the worst and chronic aspects of the genre (lack of intensity or irrelevant puzzles) with a superb setting, a smart script and wonderful artistic design. There are still four chapters left to launch but the beginning couldn’t have been better and if it keeps up the pace, it will be one of the games we will be talking about in twelve months, when we make our best-of-the-year lists. It is a game that, instead of forcing us to the next step as is usual in the genre, it simply asks us to go with the flow, open the road map and enjoy the wind in our face and the crickets chirping as we unveil the secrets of some new undiscovered place. If you don’t see the renowned quality seal of Nivel Oculto is only because this is part of a bigger project yet to be finished, but rest assured that no matters what the future holds, the time spent in this first chapter it is an experience worth the while.
Kentucky Route Zero Was founded by kickstarter, where you can find more info about the game. You can either purchase the full pack or just first chapter in their official site. I will also be released in steam after greenlight approval.