|A petrol station with a giant horse's head is where it all begins|
- Reviewed by: Mark Goninon
- Developer: Cardboard Computer
- Publisher: Cardboard Computer
- Release Date: 28 January 2020
- Time played: 11.8 hours (approx. 8 hours for a playthrough)
What is it
Cardboard Computer is an indie development studio that was formed in about 2011 by Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy and Ben Babbitt. On 7th January 2011, a Kickstarter funding campaign was launched to raise a very modest USD $6,500 towards the development of a magic realist adventure game called Kentucky Route Zero. Cardboard Computer aimed to release the game in late 2011 and the project was successfully funded on the 6th February 2011 with USD $8,583 pledged by 205 backers.
Development of the game took quite a bit longer than the developers anticipated. Originally, they were planning on releasing a new episode or act every three months and they did manage to release Act I and Act II in 2013. However, since there were only three people developing the game, they found that their original plan was a bit too ambitious and to prevent themselves suffering from burnout, they decided to give themselves more time to release each subsequent act. Also, development was performed in an experimental manner so this created even further delays to the release of the remaining acts.
Overall, it took over 9 years until the fifth and final act of the game was released in January 2020. Coinciding with the release of this final act, a "TV Edition" of the game was distributed on consoles and the game was met to critical acclaim. The PC version has a Metascore of 86 and a "Very Positive" rating on Steam based on 82% of the 1,892 user reviews being positive.
Reviews of the game praised its powerful art direction, superb sound design, and its ability to evoke strong emotions, with some reviewers even claiming its one of the finest games ever written and a perfect example of games as art. However, some reviews have mentioned that the game might be too pretentious and therefore hard to relate. The game has also been criticised for its limited gameplay and slow pacing in the final two acts which makes it feel like a chore to finish.
How I got it
I'm a big fan of narrative-rich games and despite only a few acts being released by 2015, Kentucky Route Zero had already garnered critical acclaim. I was intrigued to try it out and my brother gave me that chance when he gifted the game to me for my birthday in 2015 (thanks bro!). I gave my first impressions of the game in August of the same year and despite the surreal, arthouse nature of the game, I was keen to see more and eagerly awaited the final two acts.
|One of the most memorable moments in the game is picking lyrics for the song "Too Late To Love You"|
What I like:
Tribute to Interactive Fiction and early adventure games
The game uses a point 'n' click interface most of the time but conversations and decisions are done using a text-based menu system akin to visual novels, interactive fiction and early adventure games. There's even a whole act dedicated to interactive fiction and early adventure games where you use a computer called XANADU running an interactive fiction game with many allusions to Colossal Cave Adventure (which in turn is based off Mammoth Cave in Kentucky). You'll even meet characters which are modelled off pioneers of the genre, including an old man called Donald (possibly a reference to Don Woods, one of the developers of Colossal Cave Adventure), Amy (possibly a reference to Amy Briggs, a developer at Infocom) and Roberta (likely a reference to Roberta Williams of Sierra On-Line fame).
Most of the game has this melancholic tone to it that talks about finding beauty and joy when surrounded by tremendous loss, despair, loneliness and hardship. It's a game that's meant to evoke emotions rather than reward you with dopamine.
Despite the game having a general melancholic tone, it does have its humorous moments too. For example, I love a good portion of Act II that pokes fun at government bureaucracies and the manipulation of processes to create recursive loops. Sure, it's low hanging fruit but hey, why not?
InterludesNot all interludes are created equal but since I played this game last, they actually introduced the idea of interludes between acts, meaning you have even more content to sink your teeth into and each of them offer more background about the game's characters, or at least I think they're meant to: the interludes are so surreal at times that they just confuse me more!
Game encourages you finding your own meaning
The game's greatest strength is that it's like a surreal, arthouse film where you're not quite sure what's going on and it seems that emotions and self-discovery are more important than a cohesive plot. This also means the game is all about discovering your own meaning and its mysterious nature will keep you coming back for more to learn what happens in the next act.
GraphicsThe low poly animations and artwork are appealing and seem similar to classic French games like Little Big Adventure and Another World which isn't a bad thing.
The audio in this game is pretty phenomenal and the excellent use of sound effects creates an ambience where you could almost imagine yourself actually being there.
Most of the soundtrack tends to be ambient and surreal, almost magical, which is a perfect fit considering what this game is about. There's also a great selection of beautiful songs in this game that are inspired choices for a game set in Kentucky such as all the bluegrass tracks by the Bedquilt Ramblers (which consists of the game's composer, Ben Babbitt, singer Emily Cross and bassist Bob Buckstaff) as well as Emily Cross's soulful "I'm Going That Way" which you'll hear in the final act.
One of my favourite and most memorable moments in this game is the ability to choose lyrics for a melancholic song called "Too Late to Love You". As it's a song, it has vocals, which means you're actually able to hear the customised lyrics as you pick them. A very nice touch.
Works on Steam Link
The game works on the Steam Link so you can enjoy this strange version of Kentucky from the couch.
The game has 24 Steam Achievements that you can earn. The game has no Steam Trading Cards.
|One of the less exciting moments in the game involves using an automated messages machine|
What I dislike:
Sometimes the game drags on
While the addition of interludes may be a welcome sight to some, it sometimes feels like the interludes are content for content's sake. In particular, I found the interlude between Act III and Act IV rather boring since it's basically you listening to automated messages on a telephone and everybody hates these things in real life, right? So, you could imagine how much fun it was trying to use one in a computer game.
Act IV also seemed to overstay its welcome but I'm not sure if it's because the act itself was longer than previous ones, whether it was just boring so it seemed to drag on, or both. Since there are a lot of stops along the river in this act, there are many stories to experience as a result, perhaps too many.
Finally, it goes without saying that since a lot of this game requires reading text and lacks traditional gameplay mechanics, it can sometimes get quite boring and during these times I just wanted to skip the text so I could hurry my way to the game's conclusion.
Too strange and surreal?
The game's greatest strength is also its greatest flaw: it's a surreal adventure that's the game equivalent of an arthouse film. If you're the sort of person who likes "beating" a game or one who wants the plot to be fed to them in an easily digestible manner, Kentucky Route Zero isn't one of those games. There's not really much you can interact with in this game and it takes most of its cues from interactive fiction or "Choose Your Own Adventure" games.
Despite finishing the game, I still don't understand how everything in this game ties together. I actually had to read some articles to figure out what was going on but in the end, my hunch about the game was right in that the general consensus is that Kentucky Route Zero is an example of game as art and like all art, you either appreciate the work of art for what it is or you don't.
Score – 7/10 (Not Bad)
Kentucky Route Zero is a melancholic yet also humorous adventure that pays tribute to interactive fiction adventures of yesteryear. It also has a beautiful soundtrack and immersive background audio that helps transport you to this surreal and magical version of Kentucky. The game does feel unnecessarily long at times and the game's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness in that it works better as a piece of art than a traditional computer game.
Is the game worth $35.95 AUD?: For me personally, probably not, but it depends if you like artsy indie games, and for some this could be well worth the money. The game does have high production values though so that's something.
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[ LINK: Kentucky Route Zero Official Website ]