Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV | reviews, news & interviews
Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV
Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV
The experimental narrative takes to the water with mixed results
Just when fans were beginning to think it would never appear, Act IV of Cardboard Computer’s arthouse point ‘n’ click adventure, Kentucky Route Zero has appeared like a lonely delivery truck on a misty highway. Have you played Kentucky Route Zero?
You can check out our reviews of earlier episodes but here is a quick precis: Conway, an ageing delivery man is trying to make one last delivery for an antique company run by an exilover. He stumbles upon a cast of unusual characters and end up traversing the mysterious lost highway of the title. Surreal encounters and allegorical musing on death, loss and loneliness ensue.
Oh, the game? The game superficially resembles a point ‘n’ click adventure of the kind perfected by Lucasarts (key texts: Sam & Max Hit the Road, Indiana Jones & the Fate of Atlantis, Day of the Tentacle) but with almost none of the puzzle-solving that defines the genre. Instead, KRZ works more like an interactive play in which you guide the characters through scenes and pick lines of dialogue for them to say, revealing the story as you go.
This episode takes us off the titular highway and onto a vast underground river which roughly follows it, called The Echo. The river (also referred to as Lethe, classics fans) is dotted with islands and jetties which lead to interesting encounters as your cast of characters sail down it on a vessel called the Mucky Mammoth, almost certainly because of the enormous animatronic mammoth mounted on its deck for some reason.
Over the preceeding episodes the cast has grown to encompass TV repairwoman, Shannon; Android musicians Junebug & Johnny, Lost child Ezra and now Will and Cate, the crew of the Mammoth, both of whom have their own inner lives and outlook on the strange world our characters inhabit.
In line with the previous episode, Conway seems to be taking more of a back seat and the game is eager to give you more control (or at least insight) into the other characters. During a scene it is common for you to lose control of one of the cast and begin following another, sometimes right in the middle of a conversation. During one interlude on an island full of collectable mushrooms you are even given the chance to run both sides of a conversation at once, an experiment that works surprisingly well and helps to flesh out both characters with a few deft touches.
Really, that is what this episode is about. The game piles on the dialogue and exploring the environs gives you rather large info-dumps of back story and texture in the form of a video tape library and an answering machine stuffed with short messages that can be listened to one by one. There are few of the moments of awe and visual splendour from earlier in the series, although the production values remain very high, and nothing to match the set pieces like Johnny & Junebug’s gasp-inducing performance in Act III.
That’s not to say this episode is dull. The visuals are as inventive as ever and the sound design is perfectly deployed. There is music too, in the form of a theremin concert by another new cast member and a float-by interlude by the Bedquilt Ramblers bluegrass band who have acted as a Greek chorus throughout the series.
Coming after the high of Act II, however, and especially given the long wait for Act IV, this instalment is probably the slowest-paced and least engaging so far. It never completely lost my attention but it felt as though the designers wanted to cram in a lot of text and background material before the finale and I found myself skipping through some of the text in a way I hadn't in earlier episodes. Act IV does end on something of a cliffhanger as one character goes missing and the rest of the gang look as if they may be about to complete the game's nominal mission (don’t get too excited, its a cliffhanger only within the terms of the series. Nobody is escaping from any burning wreckage or anything) and the stage is set for... some kind of denouement. Lets hope we don’t have to wait another two years to find out what.
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