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Review | Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition

Some games exist purely to offer an unusual experience to those that play them.  Unlike traditional titles, they do not offer combat or tests of skill but instead, create a world where you become deeply immersed in your surroundings and feel emotions due to what you witness going on around you.  Having been released on PC in sections over many years, this one is now available on Xbox Game Pass in the ported edition that ties all of the acts together into a complete package.  Let’s fill up on diesel (while we can still afford it) and set off to 5 Dogwood Drive in the Xbox Era review of Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition.

In terms of story, it is important to mention that this title only has a narrative in the very loosest sense.  A man and his hat-wearing canine companion set off in a truck to deliver something from an antiques shop.  He drives down Interstate 65 in the US state of Kentucky but soon becomes lost and stops to ask for directions at possibly the coolest looking garage ever called ‘Equus Oils’.  From here things get weird, very weird.

The Heart of darkness

At this point, the almost gothic use of light and shadow, reminiscent of the classic film ‘The Night of the Hunter’, in conjunction with the stunning visual art style really drew me into the game.  Looking similar to British train and cruise liner advertising from the 1920s, the fact that the characters have blank faces with very little detail to them made no difference to me. 

Posture and the way that each person moves around the screen is used in such a way that facial cues are not required.  The main character ‘Conway’ starts limping at one point and the change in his physical stance paints a picture of the physical decline that he is going through.  The silhouette of each character that you come across makes each one of them stand out in an easily identifiable way, even when you are observing them from afar.

As a point-and-click adventure, all that the player is required to do is observe things, interact with objects, and talk to people (in sometimes rambling dialogue trees) to progress on the journey.  Soaking up the weirdness and atmosphere as you work your way through this Lynchian world is pretty much all that a player is required to do.  There is no combat, puzzles, or character threat here.  All that is required is that you click your way through the highlighted cues in each location as various characters before the game decides to move on to the next part of the trip.

Music is used to heighten the atmosphere at key moments with a lone guitarist or whole bands appearing at the edge of the screen to add depth and texture to what is happening.  I really liked the use of this device as it was not overused but really elevated those moments in the game.

Raising the Roof

A performance by a singer in a roadside bar was a particular highlight as I was able to choose verses for her to sing while the song played.  Inspired visuals accompanied this, with the roof literally being raised to allow the stars to be seen above her and very simple yet stylish dancing by the singer was mesmerising.

Moving around from location to location is rather unique in that the truck is represented by a lone wheel on a very basic line-drawn map.  Players are required to steer the wheel down each and every road in the first few sections to discover the next place that needs investigating.  Later on, there is a need to navigate the vehicle using the radio. There’s a rather trippy journey through a cave system that is not easy to describe, a flight on the back of a giant bird, and a river trip with a giant woolly Mammoth sitting on the deck of the boat.

There are Kafkaesque moments where the protagonists are caught in bureaucratic loops, time is spent playing ancient computer games, and multiple museums of strange things need to be checked out.  In this place ghosts are visible amongst the living, glowing skeletons produce whisky in coffins, and roads are randomly blocked by teams of wild horses.  It seems like memorable imagery is just around every corner.

Interludes between the five acts are pretty random.  I can only imagine that this was another way of cramming even more different ideas into the game.  One takes the form of a discussion between barflies in a bar, another is the exploration of an art exhibition, and the longest is a talk show recording in a tv studio.  While some of these work and add context to what is going on in the main story some don’t.

Is it fun?

It is all very clever but for me perhaps a bit too clever.  I can imagine how mind-blowing this would be when spaced out in small sections over many years, but when all played together, I found it to be a bit of a slog. 

I loved the surreal sections like the two men who pop up occasionally pushing a small plane along the road and never actually get to fly it, but the almost glacial pacing of the episodes became so annoying at times that I lost interest in the conversations that I was taking part in.  The first half of the game was enjoyable, but for me, what there was of a ‘plot’ lost its way after act three.

For every set piece that amazed me such as a 360-degree conversation between the riders of a motorbike and sidecar, there was another one that I found to be totally uninteresting.  Watching events through security camera footage is a cool idea, but if what you are required to watch is not worth your time it somewhat devalues the concept.

It is interesting that the course of the game can be compared to the surrealist work of David Lynch in that Act one starts like ‘Twin Peaks’, it’s intriguing and really drew me in; whereas acts four and five were more like the sprawling nonsensical ’Inland Empire’ and I no longer cared what was going on.

Technically and stylistically, I would say that this game is stunning. The music is engaging and the atmospherics really should be applauded.  Unfortunately, the lack of an engaging narrative really dragged down the experience for me and the pacing made playing it feel like hard work for several hours.

Accessibility options were standard and the game ran well on my Xbox Series X.

Summing things up, If going on a surreal ‘road to nowhere’ journey is your thing, Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition may well be right up your street.  If you want to play games that respect your gaming time this is probably not for you.  This game has a lot going for it but at the same time contains many things that diminish its playability.  Being available on Game Pass does, however, make playing it more of a tempting proposition than actually having to pay for it.

Reviewed onXbox Series X
Available onXbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, PS4, Nintendo Switch, Macintosh, Linux
Release DateJanuary 28th, 2020
DeveloperCardboard Computer
PublisherAnnapurna Interactive
RatedPEGI 12

Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition

6.5

Good

6.5/10

Pros

  • Has a unique graphical style.
  • Is unlike most gaming experiences.
  • A mesmerising experience crammed with different ideas.

Cons

  • A lot of reading is required.
  • Only has a very loose narrative.
  • Pacing is glacially slow in places.

Harm0nica

Staff Writer & Review Team

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