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Kentucky Route Zero Review: A Landmark in Video Game Storytelling

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Kentucky Route Zero has reached its end, and it's been a long time coming. The game's first act was released back in 2013, with developer Cardboard Computer steadily releasing further episodes and side content to expand its surreal story. The last act is finally here, coinciding with a complete release of the title for home consoles.

The key premise of Kentucky Route Zero seems simple enough. Conway is a driver for an antique store, and is trying to deliver to the mysterious address of 5 Dogwood Drive. Reaching Dogwood Drive is more difficult than first appears, and to get there Conway needs to find the Zero - an unfamiliar route where nothing is as it seems.

Kentucky Route Zero takes the form of a classic adventure game, but that does not truly do the title justice. The game is less focused on puzzles and more on character interactions, as the player explores the mirror of Kentucky that Cardboard Computer has created. The Zero is equal parts the abstract Americana of David Lynch and the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; a world of wreckage and loss, but with the potential for the growth of something more.

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In spite of its disparate nature, there's a cohesion across its gameplay, art direction, and soundtrack alike. Kentucky Route Zero takes a polygonal approach, but without the jarring motion that often comes with that aesthetic. Instead the game is flowing, surreal, and brilliant. Meanwhile, the soundtrack's blend of folk and ambient electronica marries up wonderfully with the tone of the entire piece.

Rather than just simple movement and item collection, Kentucky Route Zero's control methods expand beyond its point and click roots. Dialogue is a big focus as the game's characters share their histories and dreams, but through this mechanic Kentucky Route Zero expands into other elements. It doesn't keep the player fixed to one point of view, either, as although the player starts in control of Conway they will drift between the game's different actors within every act, and sometimes within a single conversation.

The perfect example of this detached approach to user control comes in the third act. The player arrives at a dive bar with the mechanical musicians Junebug and Johnny, and is placed in control of the lyrics of the song the pair perform. The lyrical choices make no difference to the plot, and this sets the tone for Kentucky Route Zero overall: there are no binary options here, just choices to make to forge a path ahead. And the results are beautiful.

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This sums up how Kentucky Route Zero works. Control and agenda-setting do not feel the same as in other games of this ilk, such as Telltale's various adventure games. In Kentucky Route Zero the player is almost external to the journey of its core cast, rather than in direct control of the characters.

This is particularly true in the new, final act of the game. The player controls a cat listening in on the conversations of the cast as they complete the actions of the finale, yet this ending never feels any less compelling than what has come before. In fact, the player gets to witness the culmination of this hypnotic journey in a powerful way.

In between the true acts of Kentucky Route Zero, Cardboard Computer experiments even further. These intermissions act very differently to the main game, splitting from the core cast to instead charge the player with tasks such as using a helpline for the Nightvale-esque Bureau of Secret Tourism, sitting as an actor in a play, or running a community television station. These interludes all provide further context to the strange world of the Zero.

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The best way to understand Kentucky Route Zero is through its characters. Conway picks up other souls along the way as he tries to make his delivery, all yearning for something more than their current lives, and searching for truth or progression. Included in this are the aforementioned Junebug and Johnny, Ezra the lost child, and TV technician Shannon Marquez.

These party members are ghosts, and speak with ghosts along the way. Kentucky Route Zero reveals a disbanded community long since past its peak, but its members are still finding peace in what remains. It's a story of survival and trying to find a home, as well as the clash between freedom and the domination of the Consolidated Power Company.

This anti-corporate message is one of the most powerful ones of the game. Kentucky Route Zero takes a critical lens to the ease at which people can find comfort within the structure that a large company can provide, to get support to survive and a definition to their lives. The game explores what happens when said company no longer keeps the interests of its employees in mind, as bottom line overtakes a responsibility to support a populace and its needs.

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The game’s setting is one of ruin. The abandonment of Kentucky and the Zero by the Consolidated Power Company has resulted in extinction; destroyed towns, closed shops, failing business, and abandoned mines caused by the dereliction of duty of the company in question. There is no singular villain in Kentucky Route Zero. Instead it’s the silent, faceless form of this monopoly, a corporation that transformed this society to suit its own needs and then took everything away.

This becomes the biggest clash within Kentucky Route Zero. Do you take the tempting position of a steady role for safety, and the debts that come with it, or hold out for something more? And if you resist, do you keep drifting from venture to venture, or do you build a home at a place that works and hope that it lasts? It's not just a discussion of the American Dream but more of our place in society as a whole, and where our personal ideals can lead us when outside impacts are not ours to control.

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