The first act of Kentucky Route Zero was really something: a surreal, highly literate piece of poetry by way of point-and-click adventure. It drew inspiration from sources as disparate as Southern Gothic literature and Colossal Cave Adventure, and succeeded at creating a mysterious and intriguing world that seemed to lay under the surface of a very familiar slice of Americana.
At the end of Act I, antique delivery truck driver Conway, his trusty rail-thin dog, and his newfound companion Shannon, a TV repairwoman and amateur spelunker, delved into the mysterious Route Zero in search of the address for Conway’s final delivery on Dogwood Drive. Act II opens not long after, with Conway and Shannon attempting to navigate the subterranean and occasionally non-Euclidean road. They arrive at the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, an organization apparently dedicated to repurposing abandoned or otherwise unused locations along or around Route Zero. An attempt to ask for directions to Dogwood Drive lead the pair on a strange journey through office bureaucracy, geometry-defying highways, and eerie forests.
Act II veers into even headier territory, leaving some (but certainly not all) of the folksy charm of Act I behind for overtly surreal scenery and fantastical creatures. It trades William Faulkner for Jorge Luis Borges and M.C. Escher. Less time is spent delving into the world-worn minds of the games’ characters or exploring the evocative landscapes of the American South. Instead you’ll be poking through strange office buildings and esoteric museums. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a bad thing. The locations are still fascinating, quirky, and memorable, but because it is so distanced from the earthy, grounded Kentucky of its predecessor, Act II doesn’t quite manage to ignite the same wonder. It’s also even shorter than the already dainty Act I, taking just over an hour to finish.
Other than that, the second act lives up to the lovely graphical and aural precedent set by the first. KRZ’s unique vector art style is just as gorgeous here as it was last time. Each scene is a carefully composed tableau, with graceful, clever camera movements adding depth to a style that is otherwise intentionally flat. There’s less of a soundtrack here than in Act I, with most scenes backed by ambient drones and noises, but when the music kicks in, it is as great as before.
As with its predecessor, Act II treads the fertile, controversial line between “game” and “interactive art.” There is little gameplay in the traditional sense. You walk around, explore, talk to people, and interact with objects in the environment, of course, yet there is only one puzzle to speak of in the game and not only is it easily bested, it can be skipped altogether with a single button press. The puzzle, if you want to call it that, revolves around the game’s world map, which takes the monochrome art of the first act’s map and abstracts it even further. You see, Route Zero doesn’t really follow the rules of geometry. It is portrayed as a single circuitous road through a cavern, but despite appearance, it doesn’t go in circles. You might find that, upon turning around and driving back the way you came, you’ve ended up somewhere entirely different. Reaching a specific location involves careful reading of instructions and heading in specific directions around the loop at certain points. It’s actually not very difficult to grasp after a moment’s confusion, and it’s probably the coolest bit of the game.
Instead of challenge, Kentucky Route Zero continues to rely on literary prowess and atmosphere to draw in the player. Rather than having you solve external puzzles or make choices that effect the game world, KRZ focuses on letting you choose how “your” Conway and Shannon react internally to the events of the game. After almost every line of dialogue you are given two or more choices of character responses, internal or external. At one point, you might decide to have Conway tell a story about his boss or talk about his childhood. At another, Shannon might ask Conway how his injured leg feels, allowing you to either respond that it hurts like hell or brush it off with a dismissive grunt. What does this change in-game? Almost nothing. There are no branching paths or epic moral choices, but these decisions can have subtle yet far-reaching effects on the way you perceive the characters.
For gamers who find this kind of experimentation as intriguing as I do, there are not many places to find the kinds of things Cardboard Computer is attempting with Kentucky Route Zero. Act II may not achieve the same level of charm and intrigue as Act I, but it remains a unique experience and one well worth checking out. I wasn't as riveted by this particular leg of the journey, but I continue to look forward to seeing where the road takes Conway and Shannon next. Until Act III, I’ll just be sitting here by the candelight, plucking my untuned guitar and thinking about the stars.