Playing through the first act of Kentucky Route Zero meant plunging, or more likely walking patiently through what was probably the best paced introductory chapter to anything I’ve played, seen or read in the last few months. As I’ve said in act one’s review, the game could be easily characterized by a steady pace of movement overall, but also by the phrase “just enough” when it came to dosing the details. Continuing from where it left off, Conway and Shannon finally manage to enter the Zero in their search for Dogwood Drive.
The Zero is not only difficult to find, but also tricky to navigate. Using Conway’s trusty truck, successfully reaching the place you desire is done through clockwise or counter-clockwise movements executed when you encounter certain landmarks. This is an interesting, but short departure from the navigation method of the first act, facilitated by the appearance of notes that help you discover locations in order to avoid frustration. The game, as the developers specify on their site, is focused more on atmosphere and story rather than puzzles.
While the pace of Act II is mostly the same, resembling the walk of a man governed either by patience or old age, the dosage of the magical realism that is the supposed main characteristic of the title is definitely richer this time around. The first act of the game had, undoubtedly, its share of interesting imagery, however, it was mostly due to the simplicity of the environments. This time around, there will be quite a few sights, rendered either through visual or textual means, that will appear to be out of place. The most obvious of them is, naturally, The Zero, though you’ll only spend about half of the act there.
The very first scene makes it clear that the weave of this act has had a few changes. Due to the journey through the mines, and his first interaction with Shannon, Conway is now limping, The first area you visit is a cathedral, turned office building where workers, are unquestioningly doing their jobs. If the repurposing of the former holy building didn’t attract your attention, then visit the fourth floor of the building or walk towards the balcony of the second floor. What you find is bound to leave you wondering.
A handful of social themes are also brought into discussion, be it through dialogue, recurring characters or two incredibly well placed musical moments. Cardboard Computers know how to make use of songs hinting at what may or may not be the purpose behind the main characters. Office work is seen as something out of which one draws no enjoyment. This very idea is mirrored in Act II through the characters’ discussions and the way the members of a meeting turn all of their attention to you, as you move through the room, instead of the presentation they’ve gathered for.
If the first act was a bit careful, then Act II is the unraveling point. The personality Kentucky Route Zero already had is much expanded upon, making it clear enough that the creators have a steady idea of where they want it to arrive. It goes without saying that all of this is a labor of love, inspired by life, art and personal experience. There is also no doubt that the game already has an identity of its own, representing a stain that’s both grey and colorful in the current indie landscape.
One playthrough of the first two acts will not be enough for those who want to have more than a peek at the title, and maybe discover all of its layers. There’s bleakness to Act II, but also charm. And most importantly it allows you to interpret it in the manner you see most fit. Right now, I can tell you that by the time all five acts are released, Kentucky Route Zero will have earned its place next to titles such as Limbo, Bastion or To the Moon in the hall of independent games that deserve a spot of their own.