The heyday of adventure gaming is considered long past. After the commercial failure of a great many games released in the late Nineties, it was no longer profitable to merely indulge storytelling and the genre went through a decade long wasteland with only a few good titles to tide over the fans.
Those fans never disappeared though, and crowdfunding services like Kickstarter have provided opportunities like never before for independent developers to get their projects moving. Most famously of course was Double Fine, who collected a phenomenal amount for Grim Fandango creator Tim Schafer to use to build another game, but others have taken to the field too, including Cardboard Computer, a two-person team who this week find themselves in the spotlight with their new episodic game, Kentucky Route Zero.
The premise of Kentucky Route Zero is a simple one. A truck driver, Conway, and his dog, who can have one of two names and genders – we elected to call him Homer – are driving endlessly around the state of Kentucky at dusk in the hope of finding an address, to which Conway is making an antiques delivery. Lost and confused, the pair make a stop at the lonely gas station Equus Oil, where they discover the address of somebody who can help them find the eponymous Route Zero – the only road which can lead to their destination. Events twist and turn until Conway, Homer and new acquaintance Shannon uncover a mystery much bigger than they ever thought.
For a game developed with only $8,500, a lot of work has been put into the presentation. Technically a 3D game but with fixed camera angles and mostly 2D movement, it’s a visual style largely driven by light and shadows and it creates some wonderfully striking views. Pulling into a gas station at dusk is particularly beautiful and the character models are well animated and expressive without needing to be high-poly or textured in much detail.
This ‘less is more’ approach is successful throughout the game in terms of music. While there’s a particularly nice-sounding segment involving a country music duo playing in the background, the majority of the game relies on ambient sound or silence. It’s understandable that a two-man game produced on a shoestring budget would be lacking some music, but whether it was a stylistic choice or a happy accident, it suits the game, particularly lonelier sections like the mine shaft exploration, to a tee. The sound effects are more – well, effective – when they work on their own and it really evokes the sense of loneliness one would feel in this less populated part of the world. Truly, it feels like the road less traveled.
The lack of sound does have one drawback, which is the lack of voice acting. Reading text is no problem of course, and since the game is not particularly wordy any gamer who has ever been into adventure titles will be perfectly au fait with the amount of it involved, but I found myself giving the characters voices in my head and it might have been nice to have the option of seeing my choice vindicated. However, once again this decision comes down to budget. If the series is successful (and there is no reason it shouldn’t be) it isn’t a huge stretch to imagine the feature being added in a future patch. If not, perhaps the fan community could pick up that particular mantle. There would be my eternal gratitude in it for you.
I’m really very happy with the amount of adventure titles that have been coming out recently, from AAA blockbusters like Beyond to mid-level stuff from established developers like Dreamfall Chapters, right down to the smallest independent titles like Kentucky Route Zero. The crowdfunding model really does seem to be giving life to those genres that perhaps don’t make enough to justify a full boxed release but which can turn a healthy profit and earn critical praise using solely digital distribution. It’s absolutely wonderful that the response to the amount of bland crud available right now has been, rather than abandoning gaming and leaving the market to crash as it did in 1983, gamers have banded together to produce the titles they love, for them, based on artistic vision rather than prodit margins.
Kentucky Route Zero is a genuinely creative game that portrays a magic realist realm almost like our own yet tantalisingly different. Its first episode is a brilliant narrative experience with believable characters, gorgeous locations and a wonderful atmosphere. The following episodes look to be promising too and I really can’t wait to see what they come up with next. It’s just nice to see, and I’m sorry if that’s a bland opinion but it’s my review and I can put what I like. In the time you’d otherwise spend complaining, you aren’t playing Kentucky Route Zero and there is no earthly justification as to why not. 9.6/10.