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This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Kentucky Route Zero.

Transcript Edit

Way back in the good old days, when a "lootbox" was just where Renaissance Fair performers stored their musical instruments, we used to debate over whether video games are an art form. These days, it's generally agreed that they are, albeit in the sense that architecture is an art form; you know, your average AAA game is like a newly-constructed skyscraper: imposing, functional, and full of people I need to murder. But there aren't many games that are akin to the experience of, say, walking around an art museum; of slowly gliding through silent, mostly empty rooms, standing in front of an installation and inspecting it with a finger to your chin as you think to yourself, "Hmm, I am bored out of my fucking skull! I hope that attractive cloakroom attendant is watching and thinking what a cool and sexy intellectual I must be, because I would desperately rather be playing Crash Bandicoot."

But now, that experience has been faithfully recreated by Kentucky Route Zero, an episodic game that recently concluded with its fifth chapter. Surprised to see someone still doing the episodic game thing, since Telltale Games choked to death on its own officially-licensed farts, but this one started in 2013, so I guess that lines up. This also means that the game took longer to finish than the Second World War and, had it been any more boring, might have had a similar body count. Kentucky Route Zero might be best classified as a point-and-click adventure, although "adventure" implies things like puzzles and challenge and adversity, so it might more accurately use the phrase "point-and-click sequence". Your interactivity is limited to dialogue choices that ultimately don't change much and moving around to get to the next one, so not a lot of gameplay to work with, but I have a job to do, so by Jacob's Cream Crackers, I'm going to damn well try to whine about it!

I wouldn't recommend using a controller like I did, because the arty cameras and clashing of gears between 2D and 3D movement mean that the direction you move in when you press the analog stick is a matter left to the whims of fate. "Oh, come on, Yahtzee. Clearly, this game is a project created by artists with a specific vision, rather than one of you video game insider types who want to put everything in classifiable boxes; you stopping in here demanding intuitive movement and boss fights is like marching into a high-class restaurant and loudly demanding to know where the children's ball pit is." Fine!

In Kentucky Route Zero, you play Conway, an aging truck driver in an aging truck on a job to deliver antiques from a shop that's about to close down. Is that enough elements establishing the theme of entropy yet, viewers?! What if we also give the truck driver a bad leg and a t-shirt with "Everything Fucking Dies" on the front in big letters? Struggling to find an address that doesn't seem to exist, Conway is directed by various mysterious figures to the Route Zero, a mysterious world of underground tunnels and secret back roads where dwelleth a forgotten vein of Middle America.

What follows is a melancholy odyssey reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland if it were directed by David Lynch, and if all the talking doorknobs and shit were replaced with struggling small business owners, passively trying to muddle along in a world that is leaving them behind, as an insidious, all-pervading company slowly eats their support out from under them, a company that I suspect might be a metaphor for death. That's going off the fact that it appears to be entirely staffed with skeletons, but I'm no literary analyst; maybe it's a metaphor for how difficult it is to find a good osteopath these days.

Conway himself takes a backseat as the game becomes a sequence of introductions to new characters and the little islands in the darkness that are the glimpses into their lives. Considering how long it's taken for all the episodes to come out, one might reasonably wonder what was taking so long, 'cos I could list a few things that they certainly didn't need much time for: gameplay design, voice acting, probably not graphics either, considering that a lot of it consists of stark gradients against blackness and the characters are simple, faceless figures that look like they could be recreated by a bored schoolboy artfully folding his sandwich wrappers.

No, I think the writing is where the time went, and in fairness, there's a hell of a lot of it. Conway's party gradually fills up with quirky characters: a TV repairwoman, an android synth-pop duo, a little boy who's best friends with a giant eagle and constantly wears a suit for no established reason, possibly to avoid being mistaken for a tasty worm. And they all have unique personalities, viewpoints, and interactions with the many unique individuals they meet on their journey, although some of those blur together a bit; in the fourth chapter, you're all on a boat, and suddenly, there's this theremin player on the squad, and I honestly couldn't remember if she'd been properly introduced or just turned up in the background like mildew in the shower. And then Chapter V introduces a whole town full of new characters, and the already-faint sliver of shit that I currently give for these peoples' lives has to be divided even further, and nobody's getting a full dingleberry!

I admire Kentucky Route Zero more than I like it. I admire the thoughtful writing and the creativity behind its ideas; I also admire people who know how to survive in the wild by chewing tree bark for nutrients, but I wouldn't consider it a recommendation of the lifestyle, and I have trouble recommending any game that puts me to fucking sleep.

I suppose there's no hope of getting out of this without sounding like a jaded video game insider with an attention span so worn down to the nub I can barely focus long enough to navigate the straw in my Capri Sun into my drooling mouth, but Kentucky Route Zero wouldn't even let me into the third chapter until I watched an entire three-act play. Not a fun play, like that one with the horse where Harry Potter gets his knob out; a pretentious student play, where three characters sit unmoving in a diner verbally skating around the fucking point for 20 minutes. It would even fucking pause if I wasn't directing the camera at whoever's turn it was to speak, ensuring there was no escape and forcing me to become an instrument to my own torment, the way my mum used to glue thumbtacks to the palms of my hands before I went to bed. Didn't fucking stop me, Mum! Just means I get awkward stiffies when I go to OfficeMax now!

I can't help comparing Kentucky Route Zero to another game I tried this week: a free demo on Steam called Star Fetchers: Pilot. A very amateurish-looking side-on hack-and-slash with art that looks like MS Paint slipped on a turd and skidded through a French window, but with a deliberate punk sensibility and humor that brought to mind Suda51's best works, and a unique core mechanic based around clicking and dragging the end of your sword with the mouse that's more like coloring-in than combat, but has the interesting raw, experimental feel of, say, Sexy Hiking. All in all, it was a million times less polished and a million times more interesting, and you know what? If Star Fetchers tried to make a point about the disenfranchisement of America's forgotten underclass, which it arguably does, I'd be a lot more likely to listen; call me a philistine, but gameplay and challenge can actually be a useful tool for pacing a story, and going without is like a film going without proper editing, or getting thrown out of OfficeMax before you could climax over the Tipp-Ex.

Addenda Edit

  • Epitome of class: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
  • I mean The Godfather's a great movie and all but it's just crying out for a mid boss or two
  • And at first I only played it 'cos I misread it as "Star Felchers"
Episodes
2007 - 2010
2007
Q3 The Darkness Demo · Fable: The Lost Chapters · Zero Punctuation (Episode) · Heavenly Sword and Other Stuff · Psychonauts · Console Rundown · BioShock · Tomb Raider: Anniversary · Manhunt · Peggle
Q4 Halo 3 · Tabula Rasa · The Orange Box · Super Paper Mario · Medal of Honor: Airborne · The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass · Clive Barker's Jericho · F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate · Assassin's Creed · Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock · Mass Effect
2008
Q1 Super Mario Galaxy · Silent Hill: Origins · Crysis · The Witcher · Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles · Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare · SimCity Societies · Yahtzee Goes to GDC · Uncharted: Drake's Fortune · Devil May Cry 4 · Burnout: Paradise · Turok · Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure
Q2 Army of Two · No More Heroes · Condemned 2: Bloodshot · Super Smash Bros. Brawl · God of War: Chains of Olympus · Mailbag Showdown · Grand Theft Auto IV · Painkiller · The World Ends With You · The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion · Haze · Metal Gear Solid 4
Q3 Webcomics · Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures · Alone in the Dark · Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures · The E3 Trailer Park · Ninja Gaiden II · Prince of Persia Retrospective · Soulcalibur IV · Braid · EVE Online · Too Human · Spore · XBLA Double Bill
Q4 Mercenaries 2: World in Flames · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed · S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky · Silent Hill: Homecoming · Saints Row 2 · Dead Space · Fable II · Fallout 3 · Guitar Hero: World Tour · Mirror's Edge · Left 4 Dead · Sonic Unleashed · The Year in Review - 2008 · Prince of Persia
2009
Q1 Awards for 2008 · Tomb Raider: Underworld · Far Cry 2 · Gears of War 2 · LittleBigPlanet · Thief: The Dark Project · Skate 2 · F.E.A.R. 2 · Spider-Man: Web of Shadows · The House of the Dead: Overkill · 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand · Resident Evil 5
Q2 X-Blades/Halo Wars · Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars · MadWorld · Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X · Siren: Blood Curse · The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena · Valkyria Chronicles · Velvet Assassin · Duke Nukem Forever · Bionic Commando · InFamous · The Second Annual E3 Hype Massacre · Prototype
Q3 The Sims 3 · Ghostbusters: The Video Game · Overlord 2 · Red Faction Guerrilla · Wii Sports Resort · Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood · The Conduit · Silent Hill 2 · 2.5-D Hoedown · Tales of Monkey Island · Wolfenstein · Batman: Arkham Asylum · Beatles Rock Band & Guitar Hero 5 · Darkest of Days
Q4 Scribblenauts · Wet · Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story · Brutal Legend · Washington D.C. · Uncharted 2: Among Thieves · Dragon Age: Origins · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 · Assassin's Creed 2 · Left 4 Dead 2 & New Super Mario Bros. Wii · Demon's Souls · Holiday 2009 · The Saboteur
2010
Q1 Awards for 2009 · Torchlight · Darksiders · Bayonetta · Dark Void · Borderlands · Mass Effect 2 · Dante's Inferno · BioShock 2 · Aliens vs Predator · Heavy Rain · Battlefield: Bad Company 2 · Final Fantasy XIII
Q2 April Fools 2010 · God of War III · Red Steel 2 · Just Cause 2 · Silent Hill: Shattered Memories · Splinter Cell: Conviction · Nier · Dead to Rights: Retribution · Monster Hunter Tri · Alan Wake · Red Dead Redemption · Alpha Protocol · Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands · E3 2010
Q3 No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle · Super Mario Galaxy 2 · Singularity · Crackdown 2 · DeathSpank & Limbo · Shadow of the Colossus · Split Second: Velocity · Transformers: War for Cybertron · Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days · Mafia II · Metroid: Other M · Video Game Voters Network · Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Q4 Halo: Reach · Dead Rising 2 · Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow · Enslaved: Odyssey to the West · Fallout: New Vegas · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II · Call of Duty: Black Ops · IPhone Games · Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood · Splatterhouse · Epic Mickey · Holiday 2010
2011 - 2014
2011
Q1 Top 5 of 2010 · World of Warcraft: Cataclysm · Fable III · Minecraft · A Shadow's Tale · Dead Space 2 · DC Universe Online · MindJack · Two Worlds II · Bulletstorm · Killzone 3 · Kirby's Epic Yarn · Dragon Age II
Q2 Pokémon White · Yakuza 4 · Crysis 2 · Nintendo 3DS · Portal 2 · Castlevania: Symphony of the Night · Mortal Kombat · Brink · L.A. Noire · The Witcher 2 · Hunted: The Demon's Forge · Duke Nukem Forever (for real this time) · InFamous 2
Q3 Alice: Madness Returns · Shadows of the Damned · F.E.A.R. 3 · The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D · Call of Juarez: The Cartel · Bastion and From Dust · Catherine · Red Faction: Armageddon · Deus Ex · Deus Ex: Human Revolution · Driver: San Francisco · Dead Island · Resistance 3
Q4 Gears of War 3 · Hard Reset · Rage · Kinect · Batman: Arkham City · Battlefield 3 · Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 · The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim · Saints Row: The Third · Assassin's Creed: Revelations · The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
2012
Q1 Serious Sam 3: BFE · Top 5 of 2011 · Super Mario 3D Land & Rayman Origins · Sonic Generations · Star Wars: The Old Republic · Amy · Resident Evil: Revelations · Darkness 2 · Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning · NeverDead · Syndicate · Mass Effect 3 · Twisted Metal
Q2 Yakuza: Dead Souls · Ninja Gaiden 3 · Silent Hill: Downpour · Kid Icarus: Uprising · Fez and I Am Alive · Prototype 2 · Risen 2: Dark Waters · Sniper Elite V2 · Diablo 3 · Max Payne 3 · Dragon's Dogma · E3 2012 · Lollipop Chainsaw
Q3 Quantum Conundrum · Spec Ops: The Line · Walking Dead · Inversion · The Amazing Spider-Man · Half-Life · Wreckateer and Deadlight · Steam Roundup · Sleeping Dogs · Darksiders 2 · DayZ · Guild Wars 2
Q4 Borderlands 2 · FIFA 13 · Resident Evil 6 · Dishonored · XCOM: Enemy Unknown · Medal of Honor: Warfighter & Doom 3: BFG Edition · Assassin's Creed 3 · Halo 4 · Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 · Hitman: Absolution · Far Cry 3 · ZombiU
2013
Q1 Top 5 of 2012 · Paper Mario: Sticker Star · Black Knight Sword & Hotline Miami · Anarchy Reigns · DMC: Devil May Cry · The Cave · Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch · Dead Space 3 · Aliens: Colonial Marines · Crysis 3 · Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance · Tomb Raider · SimCity
Q2 The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct · BioShock Infinite · Lego City Undercover · Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon · Injustice: Gods Among Us · Star Trek · Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon · System Shock 2 · Metro: Last Light · Next Gen Buyer's Guide · Fuse · Remember Me · E3 2013
Q3 The Last of Us · Deadpool · Animal Crossing: New Leaf · Ride to Hell: Retribution · Dark · Mario & Luigi: Dream Team · Rise of the Triad · Papers, Please & Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons · Pikmin 3 · The Bureau: XCOM Declassified · Saints Row 4 · Killer is Dead · Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Q4 Grand Theft Auto V · Lost Planet 3 · Beyond: Two Souls · The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD · Batman: Arkham Origins · Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag · Call of Duty: Ghosts · Exclusives Showdown · Ryse: Son of Rome · Dead Rising 3 · Super Mario 3D World
2014
Q1 Top 5 of 2013 · Knack · Killzone: Shadow Fall · Survival Special · Broken Age · Might & Magic X: Legacy · The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds · Dark Souls · Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII · Strider · Thief · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 · Dark Souls II
Q2 Titanfall · InFamous: Second Son · Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes · The Elder Scrolls Online · South Park: The Stick of Truth · FTL: Faster Than Light · Child of Day-Light · The Amazing Spider-Man 2 · Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure · Wolfenstein: The New Order · WATCH DOGS · E3 2014 · Murdered: Soul Suspect
Q3 Tomodachi Life · Enemy Front & Valiant Hearts: The Great War · Shovel Knight · EarthBound · Transistor · E.T. · Firefall · Sacred 3 · Risen 3: Titan Lords · Daikatana · Lichdom: Battlemage · The Sims 4 · Destiny
Q4 D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die · Hyrule Warriors · Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor · Alien Isolation · The Evil Within · Bayonetta 2 · Sunset Overdrive · Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare · Assassin's Creed: Unity · Far Cry 4 · Dragon Age: Inquisition · Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric · Top 5 Games of 2014
2015 - 2018
2015
Q1 The Talos Principle · Elite: Dangerous · Five Nights at Freddy's and This War of Mine · Lords of the Fallen · Saints Row: Gat out of Hell · Dying Light · Grim Fandango · Evolve · The Order: 1886 · The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D · Resident Evil Revelations 2 · Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number & Ori and the Blind Forest
Q2 Battlefield: Hardline · Bloodborne · Half-Life 2 Update · Axiom Verge & Stealth Inc 2 · Mortal Kombat X · Grand Theft Auto Online · Broken Age: Act 2 · Wolfenstein: The Old Blood · Cyberpunk Double · The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt · Splatoon · Hatred · E3 2015
Q3 Alone in the Dark: Illumination · Batman: Arkham Knight · Yoshi's Woolly World · Cave Story · Godzilla · Rocket League & Tembo the Badass Elephant · King's Quest: A Knight to Remember · Nom Nom Galaxy & Freedom Planet · Everybody's Gone To The Rapture · Volume · Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain · Mad Max · Gears of War Ultimate Edition · Until Dawn
Q4 Super Mario Maker · SOMA · Rock Band 4 · Assassin's Creed Syndicate · Halo 5: Guardians · Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 · Rise of the Tomb Raider · Fallout 4 · Star Wars: Battlefront · Just Cause 3 · Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water
2016
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2015 · Devil's Third · Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam · Assassin's Creed Chronicles · Xenoblade Chronicles X · The Witness & Bombshell · Gravity Rush · XCOM 2 · Firewatch & Layers of Fear · Far Cry Primal · Stardew Valley & SUPERHOT · The Division · Salt and Sanctuary
Q2 Republique · Shadow Warrior · Quantum Break · Dark Souls III · Ratchet & Clank · Star Fox Zero · Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door · Uncharted 4: A Thief's End · Doom · Homefront: The Revolution · Overwatch & Battleborn · Mirror's Edge: Catalyst · E3 2016
Q3 Mighty No. 9 · Inside & Shadow of the Beast · The Technomancer · Furi & Song of the Deep · I Am Setsuna · Headlander & Quadrilateral Cowboy · Quake · No Man's Sky · Grow Up · Deus Ex: Mankind Divided · Metroid Prime: Federation Force · The Curious Expedition & Mother Russia Bleeds · ReCore
Q4 Capcom Five · Clustertruck & Lichtspeer · Paper Mario: Color Splash · Mafia III · Gears of War 4 · PlayStation VR · Battlefield 1 · Titanfall 2 vs Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare · Dishonored 2 · WATCH DOGS 2 · Final Fantasy XV · The Last Guardian
2017
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2016 · Let It Die · Dead Rising 4 · Hitman · Gravity Rush 2 · Resident Evil 7 · Yakuza 0 · Nioh · For Honor · Nintendo Switch & Breath of the Wild · Horizon Zero Dawn · Nier Automata · Ghost Recon Wildlands
Q2 Mass Effect Andromeda · Yooka-Laylee · Persona 5 · Remastered Editions · Outlast 2 · Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 · Prey · Wilson's Heart · The Surge · Injustice 2 · Vanquish · E3 2017 · Strafe
Q3 Get Even · Hollow Knight / Dead Cells · Fifth Console Generation · The End is Nigh, and Yonder: Cloud Catcher Chronicles · Pyre · Splatoon 2 · Hellblade · Agents of Mayhem · Sonic Mania · Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle · Destiny 2 · Metroid: Samus Returns
Q4 Knack 2 and SteamWorld Dig 2 · Cuphead · Hob and A Hat in Time · Middle-earth: Shadow of War · The Evil Within 2 · Super Mario Odyssey · Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus · Assassin's Creed Origins · Sonic Forces · Star Wars Battlefront II · Hand of Fate 2 · South Park: The Fractured but Whole
2018
Q1 Top 5 of 2017 · Okami HD · PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds · Fortnite and Dusk · Doki Doki Literature Club! · The Inpatient and Doom VFR · Monster Hunter World · Subnautica · Kingdom Come: Deliverance · Metal Gear Survive · Hot Coffee · Hunt Down The Freeman · Ghost of a Tale
Q2 A Way Out · Far Cry 5 · Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom · Extinction and Attack on Titan 2 · God of War 4 · Yakuza 6: The Song of Life · Silent Hill 4: The Room · Conan Exiles · House Flipper and FAR: Lone Sails · Detroit Become Human · Agony · E3 2018 · Vampyr
Q3 Jurassic World Evolution · Resident Evil 4 · Totally Accurate Battlegrounds and Moonlighter · The Crew 2 · Octopath Traveler · Observer · Chasm and This Is the Police 2 · We Happy Few · Unavowed · Guacamelee! 2 and Not Tonight · Shenmue · Marvel's Spider-Man · Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Q4 Dragon Quest XI · Star Control: Origins · Star Control: Origins · Assassin's Creed Odyssey · Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 · Return of the Obra Dinn · The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories · Red Dead Redemption 2 · Call of Cthulhu · Fallout 76 · Hitman 2 and Killer7 · Darksiders III · Just Cause 4
2019
Q1 Top 5 of 2018 · Super Smash Bros. Ultimate · Gris and Ashen · Katamari Damacy Reroll · Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes · Resident Evil 2 · Kingdom Hearts III · Metro Exodus · Far Cry New Dawn · Anthem · Crackdown 3 · Left Alive · Devil May Cry 5
Q2 The Division 2 · Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice · Unheard and Outward · Yoshi's Crafted World · Mortal Kombat 11 · Katana Zero · Days Gone · Close to the Sun · Rage 2 · Observation · A Plague Tale: Innocence · E3 2019 · Blood: Fresh Supply
Q3 Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night · Judgment · The Sinking City · My Friend Pedro and Sea of Solitude · Acclaim Entertainment Hall of Shame · Wolfenstein: Youngblood · Horace · Rebel Galaxy Outlaw · Control · The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan · Remnant: From The Ashes · Blair Witch · Gears 5
Q4 Astral Chain · Contra: Rogue Corps · Ghost Recon Breakpoint · Indivisible · The Outer Worlds · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare · Luigi's Mansion 3 · Death Stranding · Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order · Shenmue III · 2019 Games I Haven't Reviewed Roundup · Phoenix Point & Bug Fables
2020
Q1 Top 5 of 2019 · The 2010s' Most Significant Games · Boneworks · MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries & Wattam · Journey to the Savage Planet · The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners · Kentucky Route Zero · Zombie Army 4: Dead War · Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem · Dreams · Doom Retrospective · Black Mesa · Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Q2 Doom Eternal · Half-Life: Alyx · Resident Evil 3 · Animal Crossing: New Horizons · Final Fantasy VII Remake · XCOM: Chimera Squad · Cloudpunk & Streets of Rage 4 · World of Warcraft: The Corrupted Blood Incident · Ion Fury & Void Bastards · Maneater · Minecraft Dungeons · Shantae and the Seven Sirens · Desperados III
Q3 The Last of Us Part II · Persona 4 Golden · Stadia · Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise · Paper Mario: The Origami King · Ghost of Tsushima · Carrion & Beyond a Steel Sky
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