The beautifully illustrated Kentucky Route Zero has recently released its fourth act, and it could not possibly have been any better. It is a gorgeous point and click game with intriguing dialogue and some very original story to tell in a form of fairly long episodes. The game shows bold geometric shapes with a stylish whitewash, creating this mysterious, gloomy atmosphere which suits the lives of the characters perfectly.
Act IV, which to me looks and is a masterpiece in its own right, is so much different from the others, but in a good way. It very elegantly focuses on expanding on the stories of the characters, while at the same time having them on some sort of a break as they travel the most unusual of spaces, one could say they’re even quite alien really.
I feel like so far this is one of the most important episodes yet, as it perfectly summarises what the game is about – antiques. Now this is in terms of the antiques that Conway is delivering, while at the same time it is about the past of each character. For example, the assumed alcoholism of Conway means that he is now in debt to the Hard Times Distillery. The sinister looking manufacturers essentially end up kidnapping him at the end of Act III for drinking their very expensive whisky.
Yet at the same time, I believe it is not just the financial debt that he has to repay, the game is also about the loss of self, in Conway’s case, it is about losing one’s self to alcoholism and the inability to get that back. His alcoholism appears to be coming back from the past to haunt him throughout Act IV, but as he loses himself, his companions still strive to keep him around.
In this episode, each character loses themselves in some way. Ezra’s family completely vanished and the years to get them back, desperately trying to comfort himself with multiple excuses like his parents just getting lost somewhere in the forest. There is Shannon not entirely sure what happened to her family either, searching for her cousin who is such a mysterious figure that somehow nearly everybody seems to know. There are jobs being changed by the big corporations, who are replacing their workers with machines, the relationships between characters are changing too. They’re all nearly like family now, Johnny and Junebug almost become foster parents to Ezra, always spending time together, even wanting to travel this strange world with each other.
What really adds to this is the lighting, which also has an immaculate effect on the game’s cinematography. Once Conway is taken away by the skeletons, we really get that sense of helplessness coming from Shannon. The loss of her most faithful companion seems to have really affected her, especially visible when she locks herself away to watch some tapes. At the moment of his abduction, Conway was kept there, just out of Shannon’s reach, in the dark where she could not see and once she saw that he was taken away by the creepy creatures, she had no chance to catch up.
At this point of the game it is clear to see how much the developers have learnt while working on this masterpiece, the mechanics of the camera within the game run so smoothly it is a pleasure to watch, yet it almost feels like the gamer is purely a spectator rather than someone interacting and changing the stories of the characters. The panning around the interior and exterior of the boat is such a beautiful way to interact with the environment. In particular, I absolutely loved the little walk along each side of the boat, seeing the differences between each side. Now the boat itself is so full of mysteries, the unexplained tapes, the strange mammoth, the weird characters that perfectly pair up with their odd histories and their even stranger sense of adventure.
With the questionable history that the Echo comes with, the developers have chosen to entertain their gamers with the most abnormal image of a boat that is a home to a lot of wailing cats. The appearance of the boat seems pretty random, especially since on its dark silhouette no human was spotted. Almost like a ghost ship for cats. Of course, Cate quickly tells us that the boat was a Civil War ship called the Iron Pariah. The rest of its history is unknown to her, but for some reason, I believe that it will come into play in the next act.
In Act IV dialogue is a lot different in comparison to what the audience was presented with in the previous acts. This really helps when it comes to revealing all these gloomy histories of the past, while also trying to foreshadow what’s coming in the future. At times it even seemed like the dialogue was essentially a puzzle. For example, on the island with glowing mushrooms, there were two separate dialogue boxes telling completely different stories that seemed like memories, while also showing the characters communicating with one another. The eroded memories are told in a complex way, intertwined between lines of dialogue.
The sense of mood also has really been affected by these amazing changes, for example, when the crew ends up playing a card game with Ezra, the lighting of the cosy looking room makes it seem like such a happy moment in comparison to when Shannon looks over tapes in a claustrophobic looking, dimly lit room. Nobody could have joined her even if they wanted to since there was only room for the one person sofa that she was sat in.
In terms of travelling down the subterranean Echo River, it almost feels and looks like Lurking, which is actually a game based around echolocation. Now I’d assume the way that the river is mapped out is almost on the same basis, which would be explained by all the bats. Since the tunnels are so dark, it is nearly impossible to know where everything is, especially since the currents also move around some of the areas. For example the gas station, which the characters discuss as moving, but always to be found up or down the river.
All in all, I am sure this new act was worth the wait, yet it only reminds its players that the next will also be Kentucky Route Zero’s last. With each act unveiling something new, and something old, it is not easy to predict what route the game will take … but that’ll probably be a few years away, which is a shame but hopefully worth it.
Magdalena Kolodziej is a freelance journalist and contributor to PN2. Be sure to say hi on Twitter @magda_0019.