I have to wonder what it will be like to play all of Kentucky Route Zero back to back once all five planned acts have been released. Acts I and II dropped five months apart, and it has been a full year since Act II’s release. Act III is now upon us, and in the interim I have promptly forgotten every detail of Kentucky Route Zero’s plot. In some ways that feels appropriate – slipping back into the strange, quiet world of the Zero after such a long time away gives rise to two feelings that epitomize the KRZ experience. First, like most of the characters in the story, I’m hopelessly lost and confused, having only a hazy idea of what took place before. Second, I feel like I’ve returned home after a lengthy voyage.
Cardboard Computer may not be the most punctual or transparent of developers – their releases have a tendency to drop out of thin air with little notice – yet they never disappoint. There have been five Kentucky Route Zero releases so far, the three core acts as well as two free side stories (Limits & Demonstrations and The Entertainment), and each has been a delight. One of KRZ’s most defining characteristics is its cornucopia of influences, from Southern Gothic literature to avant-garde theater to Dungeons & Dragons, and the game is at its strongest when it manages to balance those seemingly incongruous sources. When things lean one way or the other, the seams start to show – the second act felt a bit cold and clinical compared to the first, trading in some of the folksy charm and melancholy for postmodernist surreality, but it was still a fascinating and invigorating experience. Act III seems to be the best blend yet of the series’ clashing interests.
In my reviews of past acts, I couldn’t help but resort to literary comparisons when discussing this game, most likely because no other games are doing the things that Kentucky Route Zero does. If Act I was William Faulkner with its sad, dark, yet loving portrayal of the American South, and Act II was Jorge Luis Borges with its strange labyrinths and shattered realities, then Act III is William Burroughs with its tale of debt and regret told through grim, bizarre science fiction allegory.
We last left truck driver Conway and television repair specialist Shannon Marquez in the care of Doctor Truman, who lives in a remote house in The Forest. Conway’s leg injury from the mines in Act I had worsened until it required immediate attention, and the last act ended with him drifting out of consciousness after taking a sedative. Here he wakes up from his operation to find that his leg has been amputated and replaced with a glowing skeletal limb (one that might look familiar to those who played through the side release The Entertainment). With his new leg in more or less working order, Conway is determined to get back to the Zero and get back to making his delivery. Not long after, the truck breaks down and a pair of traveling musicians, Johnny and Junebug, come to the rescue. Pretty soon the gang is back on the Zero, where they encounter a strange group of scientists who seem to half-worship, half-study a computer called Xanadu. And of course it all makes perfect sense. Yep. Perfect sense.
Actually, perhaps the strangest thing is that it really is starting to make sense. So far the game has felt like a series of disconnected vignettes of varying levels of weirdness, and while that hasn’t changed, there are moments here that point to a more coherent narrative than I first imagined. Most significant are hints regarding the origin of the mysterious Zero, something I never expected the developers to address. Conway’s backstory is given a great deal more attention as well, giving us some very good reasons why he seems so damn sad. Suddenly the game has begun to feel a lot less random and a lot more real. Conway has some powerful scenes here.
That’s not to say that this is a completely Conway-centric episode. He carries most of the emotional weight this time around, but there’s also a lot of time spent introducing our punk lovers Johnny and Junebug, as well as Ezra, the boy who was introduced near the end of the last act. Junebug’s interactions with the precocious Ezra are particularly entertaining. A lot happens here, and it feels as though Act III runs a bit longer than previous episodes, though it’s still in the wheelhouse of 2 ½ hours.
I'm focusing so much on character and story because, as with previous releases, Act III is not concerned with puzzles or any other kind of gameplay challenge at all. The challenge with these games is in the digestion and interpretation of its characters, plot, themes, etc., which might seem like a problem if they weren't so darn good. There are only a couple of puzzle-like obstacles to overcome – one of which, involving Xanadu, is probably the closest the series has come to a full-fledged puzzle – but these are still easily overcome.
No discussion of Kentucky Route Zero is complete without mentioning the absolutely stunning art and animation. From the very first screenshots it was clear that this series didn't look like any other game, and its distinctive low-contrast, simple vector art style has continued to surprise and delight. Each act seems to find new and inventive ways of laying out scenes. One highlight is an area comprised of wooden scaffolding in front of a wall of fog. As you climb the scaffolding and move deeper into the scene, the fog lifts slowly, layer by layer, revealing more of the distant background, until finally the ominous bonfire at the top of the scaffolding is revealed. It's a gorgeous scene in a game full of them.
The audio has also been a consistent KRZ highlight, and that's no different here. Minimalist, prudent use of environmental noises and musical cues ensure that every sound has an impact. The soundtrack might be the best yet, including a brilliantly-staged sequence where the player directly influences the lyrics of one of Junebug's songs as it is being performed.
Act III goes to some strange places, even for Kentucky Route Zero, but it also shows that the series has something like a coherent story underpinning all of its affectations and weirdness. What seemed like random quirky bits stuck together in a vague but intriguing way is starting to take shape. The Zero is going someplace special, and the journey continues to be well worth the wait.