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Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV.

Three years after the initial release, developer Cardboard Computer has finally finished work on Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV.

Kentucky Route Zero is an episodic point-and-click adventure game. The funds necessary to start development of the first episode was raised through a successful Kickstarter campaign in early 2011. The first episode was released three years later, in January 2013.

Short recap: In Act I, we meet the truck driver Conway, who works for an antique store. Out on a job, he has to stop at a gas station to ask for directions. The attend tells him that the only way for Conway to get to his destination is to take the mysterious Route Zero. In the rest of Act I, and the subsequent two acts, we follow Conway’s travels along Route Zero. Along the way of the he meets other travelers, who are just as lost as he is himself.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV. All aboard the Mucky Mammoth!

Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV. All aboard the Mucky Mammoth!

The Episode Dilemma

In Act IV, the cast of unlikely traveling companions find themselves aboard the tug boat The Mucky Mammoth. The tug sails on the mysterious Echo, an underground river. The Echo is just a weird a place as you’d expect, and it’s got a lot of stories to tell. But how did these people I get to play end up on The Mucky Mammoth? And who the hell are they, anyway? I’ve got vague memories from the other acts, but playing Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV feels like jumping straight into the last part of a movie someone told you about. You have some idea of what’s going on, but you’ve missed too much of the plot.

This is an issue with Cardboard Computer’s episodic business model. Too much time passes between the release of each new act, and you run the risk of forgetting to the story told in the previous acts. For players, one way to approach this problem could be to play all the acts from the beginning with the release of a new act.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV. The Echo lacks nothing, there's even a bar down there.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV. The Echo lacks nothing, there’s even a bar down there.

Point. Click. Read.

One thing that strikes me as a notable change from the previous acts, is the apparent number of path choices the player can make through the narrative. Playing further on the stage metaphor, each act of Kentucky Route Zero is split into several scenes.

In Act IV, you are given at least two choices at the beginning of each scene of where you want the scene to play out. The choices will put you in different locations, with different characters to play. This is good for (replayability), but my uneducated guess is that your choices won’t influence the art’s ending. A professional reviewer would of course play through the game at least twice to check if that is indeed the case. But I’m just some guy writing this review as a public service, so I’ll stick to guessing.

If you’re looking for an adventure game with puzzles, then Kentucky Route Zero is not for you. The game plays a lot more like an interactive novel, and not so much as your classic adventure game. The developers themselves put it well: It “focused on characterization, atmosphere and storytelling rather than clever puzzles or challenges of skill.” None of your players have an inventory, and their interactions with the environment is very limited. The vast majority of your interactions will be with other characters, bother playable and NPCs. You’ll spend most of the time reading. The writing is good, but the episode lacks a red thread. The stories are mostly flashbacks and short stories pieced together simply by the fact that they’re related to the people that travel on the Echo.

But maybe that’s why the river is called the “Echo”, eh?

Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV is for those of you who enjoy reading.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV is for those of you who enjoy reading.

Yea or nay?

The game’s graphics and style is rather primitive by today’s standards, but it looks beautiful nonetheless. The interaction between the tone set by the visual style and the music also works very well. The animations seems to have become more advanced since the previous acts, and the Mucky Mammoth itself is particularly impressive. But perhaps a few advancements is to be expected from a game that has been in development for five years now.

Professional game critics have fallen completely head over heels in love with Kentucky Route Zero. The game has also received numerous awards, and it’s doing quite well with the players. Personally, I can’t quite get myself to recommend it. Not yet, at least. Like with the previous three episodes, I feel need to see what the sum of all 5 episodes is before I can give the game my prestigious stamp of approval.

But when Act V is eventually released in a year or two, I’ll sit down, play through the entire game from Act I, and see if it’s actually worth it.

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