Game of the Month is a new USgamer series where we highlight our favorite game we played of the last 30-something days.
January was a quiet month, unlike last year which gave us Resident Evil 2 and Kingdom Hearts 3. It wasn't a total snoozer though. Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE finally left its Wii U prison for the Nintendo Switch, and it holds up pretty great too. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot was less than great, but still a sorta-fun outing for Seiyan fans. Journey to the Savage Planet has a lot of personality, but most of the jokes fall flat. The month's best game didn't come out until the very end of the month, actually.
That would be Kentucky Route Zero, the first game to get a perfect score from us this year. Kentucky Route Zero got its start seven years ago with Act 1. Act 2 released just months later; Act 3 the year after that, and in 2016, Act 4 came out. In between them all, developers Cardboard Computer released free "interludes" that were only available from its site. On January 28, Act 5 finally released, as did a refreshed Kentucky Route Zero package for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. At last, the long-running episodic magical realist adventure is complete.
But what is Kentucky Route Zero? Well, it's a hard game to talk about without spoiling it in its entirety, though I'll do my best in any case.
It's about a man named Conway, his dog, and his truck full of priceless antiques. He's worked for an antique shop for many, many years. The owners of the shop were his close friends, until one died, and now the widow's succumbing to the cruelty of old age too. The curse is not far behind him. His last delivery is set for 5 Dogwood Drive, an address he can't find on any road in Kentucky. A gas station attendant tells him that it's probably somewhere off "the Zero," a mysterious highway that lies underneath all of Kentucky. The trick is: He has to find the on-ramp for it first.
And thus, Conway's journey begins. As does Shannon's, Ezra's, Junebug's, Johnny's, Clara's. Kentucky Route Zero is the story of a family-less group of people coming together and making a new one of their own. In my review I wrote, "Melancholic, all too real, but in the end, hopeful, Kentucky Route Zero is a reflection of what it's like to survive as an everyday American. It's an adventure concerned not just with our country's endemic issues, but with the people at the center and their undying perseverance in the face of economic cruelty."
From its prose to its imagery, it's mighty profound. What helps set it apart from other adventure games is how it employs inventive framing and camera work to communicate beyond just words. In an interview, developer Jake Elliott tells USgamer about how it's just another aspect of how soundly every moving part of Kentucky Route Zero clicks together.
"I feel like it's part of the vocabulary of the game, like the same way that some of the other camera frame works," says Elliott. "There's the single Marquez Farmhouse Scene where the camera's just tracking inward the whole time, or tracking forward the whole time, or some other ones where the camera's just fixed. Through repetition, some of these different camera structures connect different scenes."
It's been fascinating playing it again all in one go, compared to playing each act as it released over the years. Sitting with each act, maybe, is the better way to play it, even though you can technically binge in one go. If anything, my recommendation is to wait a week between each act. Simmer on it a bit, and it'll be better for it. Don't stew for four arduous years like the rest of us though.
We've loved Kentucky Route Zero for a long time. In fact, in the fall of 2019 when we were coordinating our massive Top 100 Games of the Decade list, I fought for Kentucky Route Zero's inclusion even though it remained "unfinished." It's a game that's emblematic of that decade, after all, even if it wasn't "complete." But what game is ever really complete? Every game, it feels, is taking the MMO approach now, so why not honor the very best adventure game of the decade, even if it had one episode left to go?
Almost like fate, that last Act 5 is finally here, and what a fitting end to the saga it is. It's a game that will leave you feeling sad, but cautiously optimistic about the future of America, and maybe life itself. It's a game where you can easily see how its DNA spread to other story-driven games since 2013. Still, it's something that feels really singular, even seven years out from its early chapters. And that, to me, is quite an achievement.