Kentucky Route Zero review | An unforgettable adventure

Cardboard Computer serve up a truly unforgettable adventure. Here’s our review of Kentucky Route Zero…


As has so often been the case during the seven years it has taken Cardboard Computer to get to the fifth and final act of its highly praised magical realist adventure, Kentucky Route Zero’s conclusion took me by surprise.

We’ve spent four acts travelling through darkness – on night-time drives, in an abandoned mine, through mould-infested caves – on our search for Dogwood Drive, the location for the last delivery of beat-down antiques delivery driver Conway.

Almost every light we’ve seen has been artificial, accompanied by an electric hum, in the many interstitial non-places we’ve travelled through – gas stations, warehouses, a roadside dive bar, the seat of a strange intersection between the arcane and the bureaucratic that is the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces.

However, just as Act I opened with the sun setting, Act V beings with the sun rising. It is bright and open in a way the game has never felt before. The small town in which it is set is dilapidated, but beautiful in the glow of the sun, showcasing a scene that is consistent with Kentucky Route Zero’s meticulously crafted aesthetic, but nonetheless quite unlike anything we’ve seen in the game up until this point.

The same goes for the structure of Act V. One camera shot is used, situated high above the flooded town into which your band of travellers emerges to witness the aftermath of the previous night’s terrible storm (a bit of context for this is provided in Un Pueblo de Nada, the preceding standalone free interlude that’s now been incorporated into the main game).

You control a cat, and the camera follows you around 360 degrees as you drop in on conversations, echoes of past events, or prompt an interaction with a pointed “meow.” These vignettes speak to the history of the place you are in and the present situation of its characters, connecting the two in a way that’s typical of Kentucky Route Zero and one of its great strengths.

That Act V sees us emerging from the darkness into the light certainly has some thematic resonance with what this final act is trying to do, but that doesn’t mean you should expect some kind of happy, cheery resolution. Cardboard Computer has long insisted that Kentucky Route Zero is a tragedy and that it will end as such.

There are powerful emotional resonances built through the heartbreaking personal stories of its characters and the broader themes the game has been playing with over the last few years. We won’t recap all that here, but with the game now a full piece that we can look back on in its totality, it’s clear that this is a game in large part about capitalism, or more accurately, the experience of living in it.

It is a game focused on its victims: shamed, indebted, impoverished, lonely, alienated. It is about the individuals, families, and communities broken by it: the deceased miners who perished in Elkhorn Mine; the fragmented Márquez family; Conway, who, snared in the net of a healthcare system based on profit, slowly slips away; the abandoned young boy, Ezra; and this town that the story ends in, left to rot by the company that once owned it.

This core is important, because as vague and conceptual and experimental as it can be, Kentucky Route Zero threatens at times to alienate you. But its clear advocacy for working people; its anger at the injustices they have to face provides an anchor that balances things out.

The game allows plenty of space for interpretation, but the sadness it feels for the victims it aims to represent is never in question. It knows that its openness, its narrative flexibility, becomes meaningless if it fails to draw any lines in the sand.

The stakes are too high for that. It makes us feel that sadness profoundly, both through the connection built with individual characters and their stories, and a mourning for the many nameless and faceless victims whose history the game gestures to, perhaps never more present in Kentucky Route Zero as they are here, represented in ghostly black apparitions that roam around the town.

This is all brought to bear in an incredible finale that yet again showcases Cardboard Computer’s immense talent for constructing a scene. It left me in tears.

Given Kentucky Route Zero’s proclivity for leaving things up for interpretation, either narratively or structurally, by letting you as the player guide the direction of scenes via the choices you make, it should come as no surprise that Act V doesn’t wrap everything up in a neat bow. There are no mysteries solved, no definitive resolutions.

This is in no way unsatisfying; it feels wholly appropriate for this story. More than that, though, it is essential for generating the sense of hope that pierces through the game’s tragedy. The lack of closure leaves it with a distinct sense of possibility.

The town you are in is battered, broken, and near-deserted, but residents remain that may just be willing and able to rebuild it. The characters you’ve been taking this journey with may have found something too. In each other, or in this place, you get the sense that they have a future. Something new, something better, is ready to emerge. This is, I think, the perfect way for a game ruminating on the brutality of the age in which we live to end.

Perhaps partly an artefact of the contingency of Kentucky Route Zero’s stuttering release schedule, or perhaps entirely down to the elegance with which it combines its impressionistic writing style with delicately constructed theatre-inspired scenes, this game is able to capture an ineffable truth about the near-decade over which it’s steadily been released, one that it doesn’t so much describe, but rather, emote.

This might sound like a grand, pretentious claim, but play it for yourself, and it’ll make you feel it too.


Kentucky Route Zero uses music incredibly well. There are a number of set-pieces that bring a musical performance to the fore, which, combined with theatre-inspired staging that works beautifully in concert, always lands with incredible effect.

Verdict: 90%

A remarkable game that manages to marry an abstract style with concrete commitments.

Genre: Adventure
Format: PC (tested) / Mac / Linux / PS4 / XBO / Switch
Developer: Cardboard Computer
Publisher: Annapurna
Price: £18.99
Release: Out now

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