I have seen many strange, bewildering and wonderful events whilst playing through Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition on Xbox One. Events that I still can’t quite get my head around; things like a boat that has a wooly mammoth as it’s foghorn, an office which has a third floor that is full of bears, a cave where old computers burn in a huge fire and strangers play a video game Xanadu. And that’s without mentioning the giant bird who turns out to be the brother of one of your party. Confused? You should be, but that’s just a smattering of what Kentucky Route Zero can do. But it can also be enchanting, leaving you staring at the TV, open-mouthed, as you attempt to make sense of it all. Welcome to the unreal.
Kentucky Route Zero is a point and click magic-realist adventure game; one that is attempting to tell a story unlike anything you’ve heard before. It’s a tale told over five acts with the first episode releasing back in 2013 on PC, shortly after a successful Kickstarter campaign. Cut to January 2020 and the final episode has just been released, as well as the TV edition to bring together all episodes plus additional bonus content on Xbox.
If you’re a fan of writing and stories then you have come to the right place, and this is probably one of the most interesting, unique and brilliant pieces of writing ever to grace the gaming world. If you’re not a fan of the narrative arc in a game and just want action, then unfortunately you’re going to struggle here, and certainly won’t get much from this game. And that would be a great shame because it’s such an experience to wander through, happily leaving you with many questions and things to ponder well into the dark hours.
Kentucky Route Zero tells stories which see the narrator constantly changing. You might be making decisions for some of the lead characters in the game but suddenly you will be deciding over elements of a tree dialogue system for a random character that just stays around for that scene. Everyone is important and everyone is fleeting in Kentucky Route Zero. I was reminded of great American authors and artists like Paul Auster and Spalding Gray as the game delves into realism, sci-fi, folklore and domestic drama. And it has to be said that some sequences will stay with you forever; like one in an empty bar that, with the notes of a song, literally takes the roof off. When you have worked your way through all the madness, upon discovering the ending to all five acts the chances are you’ll have a tear in your eye. But then, it might also leave you shouting at the TV, asking “is that it?”. Well yes, it is, and I loved every minute of it.
The gameplay itself is very simple to get hold of. Kentucky Route Zero plays out as a point and click game where you can move the characters around the space or area, waiting for an icon to go green so that you can interact with it. This normally starts a conversation with a character as a sequence of events starts to unfold. Dialogue trees occur all the time and there are different choices to make throughout, playing cleverly with the form as well as changing the perspective constantly. In one section you will find that there are two conversations going on simultaneously in the split-screen. In another it is up to you to decide the lyrics of a song being sung. And then there are also moments in which you jump in your truck and drive across various routes. It is here where you’ll be left to move a representative wheel across a map, turning and following instructions on where to go next. When you get onto Route Zero itself a much stranger world opens up- one in which you need to try and keep your head sane.
Visually and Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition on Xbox One is absolutely beautiful. Animations, amazing lighting effects and the unique use of perspective in the way a scene changes are truly original and a delight to behold. It switches seamlessly from one point to another, for example moving from the shoes of an actor in a play where you look around and see the action from the other performers, to actors waiting in the wings and a half-full watching audience. This is just one example of how the game constantly puts you into situations that always surprise and enchant. In terms of camera angles, storytelling, and visual motifs, it’s like an indie movie at times. Visually amazing.
The audio is also pretty sublime with brilliant effects and atmospheric creations that astound throughout. The audio effects are wonderful, full of action and provide beautiful sounds that combine to create and enhance the sense of unease and the unreal nature. And then you have the music itself: a musical soundtrack that delivers some of the best compositions I’ve ever heard on a game. There’s a song in a nightclub that is magical, a recurring bluegrass band number and the final act eulogy that will not see a dry eye in the house.
To conclude, and Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition on Xbox One is a one-off game. In fact, I doubt we will see a game like this for years to come. Lovers of action, frantic gameplay and lack of narratives won’t find much in here I’m afraid, however those who love stories and how narratives shape our lives will utterly adore this game. It’s strange, weird and bizarre but that’s the genius of it all. The artwork and sound are some of the best out there and the way it plays with various point and click arenas is like a work of art. With more than ten hours of gameplay involved, you should certainly be venturing out in your van and hitting up Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition.