The first act of Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero is a proof of concept, and a strong one. It’s one of the first games to have been conceived, raised, and officially released through the Steam Greenlight service, which allows nearly anyone to make a submission, at which point it’s life or death is subject to a community vote. The reasons for its success are clear, as KRZ is a brilliant experience that makes the case for a lack of traditional gameplay being just as relevant as anything. As long as that game makes an exponential return on whatever it requires the player put into it, it can be successful as a gameplay experience. Kentucky Route Zero nails that input/output loop, never demanding more than it offers, which is an atmospheric, intriguing journey.
KRZ is one part point-and-click, one part text-adventure. Gameplay consists of simply clicking on objects or areas in the environments, or selecting different text options when they arise in conversation. It’s simple and straightforward, and exactly as involving as it needs to be. I never felt like I wanted more in terms of gameplay or feedback, and always felt like KRZ was giving me more than I was putting into it. This is a loop nailed to a professional degree, and the most important aspect of KRZ’s success. If it didn’t return constantly interesting and entertaining information like it does through character interaction, world exploration, and dense atmosphere, it would fail.
That aforementioned atmosphere is the strongest aspect of KRZ as an experience. Both the graphical style and audio design are impeccable, and work together to create a palpable mood. A mood that is, fittingly, very much akin to that of a ghost story. So much of what happens in KRZ feels ghostly, one example being an enigmatic conversation with a certain character, who promptly disappears with no explanation. That particular encounter is the launching pad for everything that follows in KRZ, and leads to many questions and discoveries than turn a simple delivery job for protagonist Conway into a journey he never could have anticipated.
Driving down those Kentucky side-roads in the dead of night, stumbling across an abandoned museum and investigating its interior, encounters that can only be described as paranormal; these are the things that make KRZ special and unique. Though it lacks a deep style of play, there’s no lack of entertainment and thought-provocation. It even manages to be tense and haunting in several instances, no doubt thanks to the beautiful and simplistic art, and perfectly ambient soundtrack. With four acts left to experience in Kentucky Route Zero, I have a feeling this will be a journey worth seeing through to the end.