Kentucky Route Zero Review: Thematic Surrealism

Even on the surreal back roads of time and space, we cannot escape America.

My character injured their leg at the end of Act 1 of Kentucky Route Zero. The rest of the game portrayed it as a glowing, skeletal crutch that crunches slightly and leaves a visible echo behind with every step. You navigate much of this game through dialogue choices, choosing how any given character feels — or at least how they express their feelings — about any given situation. One of the options for the hurt character was: “It seems better, but… it wasn’t worth it.”

The whole sequence wrung me out. About a year ago I had serious surgery on my own leg. Since then I haven’t been able to express where it’s left me. Yes, it’s better, but now it’s fa weird alien appendage and walking is just off. Every step comes with a figurative crackle like static electricity. It’s a deeply specific and personal connection, but Kentucky Route Zero is so dense with similar moments that it won’t be hard for any player to find their own. Even this injury soon cascades out into things I’m lucky enough not to be dealing with: debt, opiates, PTSD. Other characters lead the way through examinations of coal mining, mass media, computing, bureaucracy, land, play, architecture, transport, and so much more.

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kentucky route zero review

The characters in question come together as Conway, an antiques store courier, tries to locate a specific house to make his final delivery. His journey takes him to the Zero, a mysterious highway full of surrealist pit stops, and introduces him to a dozen or so other drifters swept up on the ride. Different scenes allow the player control over different characters, guiding them through the space and through conversations with each other and various Zero locals. At times you’re not just choosing what characters say, but who speaks at all, shaping the flow of interactions while also seeing the interiority of multiple members of the group.

No matter where you are or which characters you’re with, Kentucky Route Zero is consistently gorgeous. There’s so much attention to detail in color palettes, lighting, and perspective that every scene feels like its own art piece. They’re more easily viewed on a larger screen (like a PC monitor, where I played the first four acts), but the Switch version (where I played Act 5) feels like a deliberate miniature; painstakingly arranged dollhouses inviting you inside.

The same care is evident in the game’s sounds. Everything hums just as it should: the highway in the distance, machinery running, rain dripping on the roof. People cough and shuffle their feet. Most of the music is ambient, feeding into the strangeness of whatever places Conway and company visit, without taking attention away from them. But when it wants you to sit up and pay attention, it’s irresistible.

kentucky route zero review

The heart of Kentucky Route Zero, though, is its writing. The five-act tale effortlessly pulls together poetry, prose, dialogue, inner thoughts, playwriting, epistolary emails and newspaper clippings, and more. Pulling from a long history of southern Gothic literature before it, its surrealism has meaning, shining a spotlight on labor, inequality, and family tensions.

It’s a deeply American game, but crosses borders easily. Its spaces feel familiar — or else anything uncanny within them feels appropriate, like a ghost story passed on by word of mouth or a half-forgotten dream. By putting its politics in the lives and words of its characters, it feels tangible, even if it’s specific to its setting. Besides, as Korean director Bong Joon-ho explains about the worldwide success of his films: “We all live in the same country, called Capitalism.”

Kentucky Route Zero plays out in five acts. Between those, four interludes take a step away from Conway and his friends to focus on other communities and places along the highway. As well as giving different perspectives on certain themes and characters, they often play with the game’s mechanics and framing. One interstitial is an extended dive through a call center menu. Another hovers halfway between watching a play and eavesdropping on a bar conversation.

kentucky route zero review

The first act came out in 2013, leaving Kentucky Route Zero unspooling bit by bit over the past seven years. It’s unsurprising, then, that each act feels more confident than the last. Visuals, writing, and sometimes simply the way vignettes are presented become more creative as the game progresses. And with the fifth and final act now complete, and the game available as a bundle (including on consoles as the TV Edition), players no longer need to wait long stretches between installments. The complete package better retains the flow of a single-night narrative.

But the act-based structure still works strongly in KRZ’s favor. Each lasts just one or two hours, preventing any chapter from dragging. The breaks also give good pause points to allow reflection. These are worth capitalizing on. The game works best when it’s given time to sink in.

I took several days off playing after Act 2, but stayed preoccupied by thoughts of injury, healthcare, and trauma. I took walks, leaning on my own flickering, incomplete leg. I wrestled with the concept of pain and the meaning of its absence. For me, it was this. For others, it could be unions, music, or debt. The Zero brings them all to the surface, and plenty more besides.


This review is primarily based on the PC version, purchased by the reviewer. Act 5 was reviewed on Nintendo Switch using a code provided by the publisher.

Kentucky Route Zero

9.5

Kentucky Route Zero uses its surrealist narrative to shine a spotlight on history, America, and capitalism. Its world is full to the brim with strange locations, personal explorations of big themes, and beauty.

PROS
  • The narrative weaves its themes together deftly.
  • It looks and sounds gorgeous, always.
  • The act-based structure gives each section time to breathe.
CONS
  • Some characters struggle to make a mark.
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