Kentucky Route Zero is the sort of game where you get back what you put into it. The amount of time you spend connecting with the characters and their world rewards you with varying messages and morals. Each person could take away something different from the adventure, depending on who they liked most, how many optional excursions they went on, if they played through the interludes, and their own mindset when playing. The one guarantee is that it would be thought provoking and perhaps get you wondering about how the Kentucky Route Zero allegories from its now complete tale might apply to your own life.
Certain themes do carry greater weight than others in Kentucky Route Zero’s five acts. The concept of change is one. Throughout the game, it could feel like someone is constantly living through the aftermath of life-changing events. Conway, a truck driver, is attempting to make a delivery to a place called Dogwood Drive, searching for the titular Route Zero to get there. He arrives at a gas station that has seen better days, a home where the family fell victim to heartbreak and death, and a mine where floods and an imminent cave-in make exploring difficult and leave him injured. His newly acquired traveling companion, Shannon, is dealing with grief and debts. In the second act, we’re introduced to a whole Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces dedicated to change.
Duty is equally important, with everyone taking on obligations and aiding in Conway’s delivery. The third act establishes that his will be the last one ever made for the antique shop. But duties that are honorable and perhaps even good, like this last job for someone Conway has known for a long time, are one of many. We also have the obligations, tasks levied on the growing group to make that delivery possible that can’t be avoided. There are the debts themselves, knowing that Shannon’s family had one that drove Weaver away and Conway soon acquires one which will change his life.
Which brings up the idea of loss. Kentucky Route Zero’s five acts can be rather melancholy ones, with people major and minor leaving us along the way. This is set up from the very outset, with Weaver appearing briefly for Conway and Shannon acknowledging that her cousin ditched the family after the Elkhorn Mine flooding and subsequent debts. Foreshadowing hints that others we love might not always be with us, even as new people like Ezra, Johnny, and Junebug rally to our cause. We see how disasters and progression shape the world around us, taking things we might need or want and replacing them with oddities or the unknown.
Kentucky Route Zero’s five acts are filled with the unknown and the supernatural. In the first act, we see Conway experiencing visions with Weaver’s TV, hinting at an entrance to the Zero and a barn with some horses. When we head into the mine, we see the shadowy spirits of those who had come before. There’s an unusual forest and a cure that leave someone perhaps not quite human. We have a computer being run by a software and mold, as well as a pair of exceptionally musical robots. There are these constant undertones that suggest not only technological progress is helping to shape the world, but nature is taking its course with things like floods.
The only thing I would recommend is, to play on a TV if you are playing the Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition Nintendo Switch version. It can be fine and passable in handheld mode, but there are certain elements that can distract from the experience. Since everything is text-based, reading the font can get a bit tricky when playing on the go. There are also some segments, most notably in the first act, that benefit from playing on a larger screen where you can adjust the brightness and contrast. These are the biggest issues in the first and fourth acts, where players might explore some dark spaces.
Kentucky Route Zero is an exceptional experience, both in its PC and recent console-version TV Edition. It’s a moving one that evokes all sorts of thoughts and sensations. While you might not be making decisions that alter the course of the story, the choices can change your perception of it and what it means to you. The different themes and notions that come up might trigger things inside of you and get you thinking about what their surface and underlying meanings could be. You might even start wondering how they connect to your own life and experiences, as well as those around you.
Kentucky Route Zero is available for PCs, while Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition is available for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.