Kentucky Route Zero is best described as an interactive visual novel, along the lines of Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP.
Unlike related games such as the marginally more successful The Walking Dead, however, it left me with no real feeling of player agency.
Sure, there is some flexibility to move around and experience different absurdist vignettes between story-arc set pieces, however these don't pretend to influence the narrative progression in any observable way.
The game doesn't demonstrate any noticeable sense of self-awareness about this either, like in The Stanley Parable.
Ultimately, the best comparison I can draw is to meditative extended video-clips, such as Baraka and Powaqqatsi, in that this game is a thing that exists primarily to be watched and admired.
As a meditation to be watched and admired, this game succeeds admirably.
The block colour/silhouette style is gorgeous; the audio sparse and evocative; and the melancholy dialogue intelligent, mature and well written.
The setting is whimsical and dream-like, with absurdist elements, and the pacing and tone works well in the context.
I'm on the fence, however, about whether I think that Kentucky Route Zero is any good as a game.
As I would define a 'game', player agency seems to me a defining characteristic. Agency might be via micro-decisions, such as what to shoot with which gun in a linear FPS, stat progression trees and character customisation in an RPG, or varying strategic and tactical choices influenced by the randomness of procedural generation. It is the perception of player agency, even if only a perception, that adds a level of immersion that allows one to be drawn into a story and personally invest in it.
In Kentucky Route Zero, while the player moves various protagonists around the screen and clicks dialogue choices, these have no noticeable influence on the story other than exposition.
I therefore find myself drawing comparisons more with other, more established, non-interactive media, such as graphic novels, literature and film that are more reliant on narrative and where examples of mature, quality story lines are plentiful.
How, then, does this game compare to great film, great literature, or a great graphic novel? On that basis, I can't bring myself to describe the game any better than average.
Ultimately, if I want to be taken for a ride I actually get better immersion from letting a story wash over me while reading or watching a movie. At Kentucky Route Zero's pace, the interaction tends more to break immersion for me rather than enhance it.
There is a huge amount of talent being demonstrated here, and primarily for that reason I'm ultimately going to give this game the thumbs up.
It does seem to me, however, that there may be a tendency for those well aware of the woeful absence of genuinely intelligent, complex and mature themes in most games to be a tad overenthusiastic when they find a game that does take a decent stab at these, even if it fails on virtually every other measure by which we normally assess computer games (Rock Paper Shotgun 2013 GOTY, I'm looking at you).
For what its worth, the game is also short. I am a slow-paced gamer, I explore every nook and cranny and take small breaks for a drink or such like. Nonetheless, Steam reports my time spent in the game as less than three hours.
Review is based on Episodes I and II only. The remaining three episodes have not yet been released at the time this review was written.