I don’t think I could name a more beautiful game. I don’t use ‘beauty’ in the straightforward sense of Kentucky Route Zero [official site]’s appearance, although its bold geometric shapes and flat-wash colour absolutely qualifies, as does its wonderful architecture – Americana infused with magic realism. There is the soundtrack and the sounds too, ambience and steel guitar and the lonely sound of engines – gentle sonic beauty, but again that is on the surface.
In fact there is beauty woven through the core of KRZ: its love of images, its love of words, its love of the American landscape, and perhaps most of all in its preoccupation with the warmer side of the human mind. Whether that be conviviality and the coming together of sympathetic souls, or pulling solace from solitude and from the road. This has been a theme, of sorts, throughout KRZ’s first three acts, but the fourth arguably pushes it more to the fore, consciously slowing down and allowing its expanding cast to idle, to find themselves in idyllic rather than unsettling locales. This could be a good life, if they wanted it.
It’s markedly different to what’s gone before, both in terms of tone and structure. I want to say it’s perhaps the weakest of the Acts to date (there is one more to follow), but given how much is layered into this game, essentially invisible unless dug for with a deep knowledge of literature and theatre to hand, it’s entirely possibly I’m missing vital context that would lift IV in my mind. And, in any case, even a weaker Kentucky Route Zero is going to places other games simply do not, and cannot.
This is something of a calm before the storm chapter, though that too is based only a guess that Act V will draw threads together at last. I shall avoid spoilers – one in particular – but it is hard to discuss IV in any meaningful way without talking about one change. KRZ Act III’s quintet of characters are now at sea, living together on an unusual boat, its cross-section interiors evoking a far less zany Zissou.
Though this journey echoes the Zero highway in visual ways, it is a very different affair in terms of pace and tone. There are destinations in sight, but for the bulk of Act IV it is a free drift, even to the point that it overtly grants holiday time to the cast.
Where previous chapters have been something of a restless (though unpressured) search for meaning and purpose in a universe that shrugs nonchalantly at every request for answers, IV repeatedly presents at least the outline of an idyllic lifestyle, a blissful life at sea with a family of friends. Gathering mushrooms, exploring bat sanctuaries, seafood meals at perfect ocean cafes, and cocktails on the beach to a slide-guitar soundtrack.
It’s a big departure from the metaphysical oddity of Acts II and III, and though no less beautiful its pursuit of something closer to normality means there are fewer remarkable sights. There are still some, fear not: for instance, I’ll just say the words ‘cat boat’ and leave it at that. Frankly, it’s a tall order for anything to keep up with the bar scene, Xanadu and the distillery tour in III, and perhaps this being more (ironically, given the nautical setting) grounded is a deliberate reaction to that.
However, with this comes a surer sense of being railroaded. KRZ has always been far more about choice of attitude than choice of action, but the absence of the freedom to drive those highways is felt – the ship sails itself, offering only the occasional option of whether to get off at some of its preordained stops or not.
This is coupled with the fact that sometime star Conway adopts very specific behaviours that, previously, had seemed more like an option, in terms of what kind of guy the player perceived him to be. He is not our avatar any more.
Can’t safely say much more, but put it this way: expect a more talkative fellow, and one who behaves far more like an NPC than a protagonist. There are intriguing and even distressing reasons for this, and I have no doubt that concepts of things slipping out of our control will increasingly come to bear later, but for now his diminished role is offset by the introduction of yet more companion characters.
Already up to five by the time III ended, the ranks of the main cast are now swollen further still – to the point that it’s started to threaten my sense of connection with those who came earlier. The newcomers don’t make anything like as clear an impression as III’s delightful Junebug and Johnny, and to some extent their arrival is at the expense of time with Conway, Shannon and Blue (what the hell do you mean you called your dog something different?).
In particular, one new character, Will, acts as essentially a narrator for the journey, spinning long, meandering tales and sometimes inviting the player to choose which direction one will go in. This means far, far more text than even this game’s usual verbose standard, often with few choices to be made, and I have to admit that, for the first time in this series, my attention began to waver.
This being Kentucky Route Zero and its longstanding fascination with theatre, I have little doubt that something is being said about the nature of telling and hearing stories (and the more fixed structure and movement perhaps plays into that too), but an excess of slightly contrived wistfulness is an excess of slightly contrived wistfulness even when it’s trying to make a point.
It also makes this chapter artificially long, perhaps even the longest yet, whereas I suspect that, were there more brevity of dialogue, this would be KRZ’s shortest act.
There is a sense, overall, of biding time ahead of the (presumed – let’s be honest, the e’er-inventive folks at Cardboard Computer could spring anything on us yet) finale. Two major events occur towards the end, but ahead of that the cast are essentially on holiday. Not that they don’t deserve it, but I have to confess to feeling slightly detached from proceedings this time around – I felt less involved in the behaviour of the cast, more of a spectator now.
I can’t help but wonder if there has been some anxiety on the developer’s side about how to move pieces into position ready for a conclusion, and the result of that is a more fixed journey than before, but on the other hand the only thing I’m truly confident in saying about Kentucky Route Zero is that its creators are far, far smarter than I am.
Despite my sense that this chapter is not quite the equal of those before it, it is entirely unmissable if you have played those, still as beautiful and unpredictable and as forlornly romantic as ever, and this time it shows me at least two places I wish I could go and live in forever. And though some water may be overtly trodden this time, be in no doubt that things are moving towards a conclusion. Dogwood Drive awaits.
Kentucky Route Zero Act IV is out now on Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam, GOG, Itch and Humble through the developer’s own site. A season pass for all four episodes (a fifth and apparently final episode will appear in due course) costs £19/$25/€23 but is 50% off on all sites at the time of writing.