The first act of Kentucky Route Zero took me almost completely by surprise. While the screenshots intrigued me, the idea – a surreal adventure in rural Kentucky – didn't ignite my gaming passions. Indeed, it sounded like I was in for a Faulkner novel – which is okay, but not really video game material.
Instead, I got an intriguing and original adventure game with great atmosphere and an excellent story with rarely a moment of boredom. I also got a surreal adventure in rural Kentucky; so that's cool, I guess. Act II doesn't change much in terms of gameplay, but takes Kentucky Route Zero into stranger, darker territory that works beautifully for the game's mission. Some minor spoilers lay ahead, so tread warily if you haven’t yet been down the Zero.
Act I started off slow and ramped up the action considerably as the episode progressed, beginning at a lonely gas station and taking us through an abandoned mine full of ghosts before finally ending at a frickin' tear in the space-time continuum (or something). Act II starts off on a decidedly low-key note compared to the trans-dimensional ending of Act I, with our heroes spending the first part of the chapter meandering around a particularly strange office building. While the setting is cool – there's a floor full of bears; holy shit!!! – the actual game is very dull here, reminiscent of the first act. Thankfully, things escalate soon after your departure
As there's little necessary exposition for this part of the story, things carry a lot more heft. A weakness of the first act of Kentucky Route Zero was that nothing felt at stake. You're some guy, you have to deliver antiques; who cares? But now your characters are actually on the titular highway, lost and probably a few universes away from home. The roads here are confusing and nonlinear, and our male protagonist has a leg injury that quickly worsens. The sense of actual peril in Act II really does wonders for the game's storytelling. No longer does Kentucky Route Zero feel like a drive around the block; nay, it feels like a real journey. This results in Act II feeling much shorter, and when the bad-ass ending sequence rolls around you’re definitely hungry for more.
Since this episode of Kentucky Route Zero takes place primarily on the Zero itself, it's also free of many ties to the real world from the first installment. The game does venture back to reality in this act, but after leaving the Zero, it feels different and breaks many of the first game's rules. These instances don't feel out of place, though. The reason that Kentucky Route Zero succeeds so well with its unorthodox setting and tone is because it builds up to it. There is a constant balance between normal and balls-out crazy, which keeps the game out of boredom but still away from stupidity. It's a level of storytelling rarely seen in games.
However, Kentucky Route Zero's literary ambitions are also the source of its few problems, a trend that continues from the first act. While exploring the game world, you often stumble on non sequitur, text-only events. I suppose the developers intended these as rewards for exploration. Since the reward in a story-driven game like Kentucky Route Zero is more plot rather than a power-up or an extra life, this makes sense on paper. Maybe this makes me sound like a total peasant, but many of these events are just…boring. They're cool, sure, but they ultimately feel tacked on and almost pretentious. If they're metaphors, they are too vague to work. If they’re just there because, well…neat, I guess? But I’d rather see something that actually relates to the story in some way.
Still, Kentucky Route Zero, Act II continues Act I's pattern of a unique setting and intriguing characters while significantly improving its pacing. If you're not a person who enjoys these types of games, then Kentucky Route Zero, Act II, like the first one, is unlikely to change your mind. But if you enjoyed the first episode or think the idea of a story-based game sounds dope, then this act of Kentucky Route Zero contributes nicely to the package. If the developers continue making the same improvements, the rest of Kentucky Route Zero will be a very pleasant road indeed.
Jon Dantzler lives in North Carolina. Gifted with a Game Boy while in utero, his childhood was full of games. He started writing when he was 11 and now devotes the majority of his time to either activity, usually accompanied by beer and food. You can read his tweets, mostly about said beer and food, at @TYBasedJon.