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Kentucky Route Zero: Act II


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Kentucky Route Zero: Act IISpoilers ahead! Kentucky Route Zero is an episodic point-and-click game in five acts. Before you dig deep into Act II, please do consider enjoying Act I first.

The Act opens on Lula Chamberlain, a senior clerk at the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, reading a letter about her application for a fellowship from the Gaston Trust for Imagined Architecture. Astute players may already be familiar with Lula as the unseen protagonist of the point-and-click interlude Limits & Demonstrations (available as a free download here), meant to segue between Act I and Act II. This introductory sequence, as brief as it is, serves to not only welcome us back to Cardboard Computer's charmingly magical realist world of Kentucky Route Zero, but to also prepare us for what important concepts Act II urges us to consider. As before, there is no inventory, no menus to worry about or be managed. Just you, your mouse, and the story before you.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act IIAs Scene I properly begins, we pick up again with Conway and Shannon where we left them at the end of Act I, standing in the lobby area of the Bureau as they continue their search for 5 Dogwood Drive where Conway is scheduled to make his last delivery. Conway, due to the injury suffered to his leg in the mines during Act I, is becoming increasingly delirious, walking with a slow gait and a pronounced limp. After approaching the reception desk, Mary-Ann, the Bureau's receptionist, sends the pair to Lula for information about this mysterious address, but there they find yet another dead end. Lula informs them that she used to live on a Dogwood Drive but couldn't be certain if it was the same one, directing them toward the old Bureau archives with an additional recommendation for Conway to visit the local Dr. Truman about his failing leg.

As Scene I properly begins, we pick up again with Conway and Shannon where we left them at the end of Act I, standing in the lobby area of the Bureau as they continue their search for 5 Dogwood Drive where Conway is scheduled to make his last delivery. Conway, due to the injury suffered to his leg in the mines during Act I, is becoming increasingly delirious, walking with a slow gait and a pronounced limp. After approaching the reception desk, Mary-Ann, the Bureau's receptionist, sends the pair to Lula for information about this mysterious address, but there they find yet another dead end. Lula informs them that she used to live on a Dogwood Drive but couldn't be certain if it was the same one, directing them toward the old Bureau archives with an additional recommendation for Conway to visit the local Dr. Truman about his failing leg.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act IIThe curious and absurd Museum of Dwellings, visited later in Act II, examines the ways that places are often integral components to memory and identity and further examines the social and cultural concepts behind the definition of home. The Zero itself is both real and unreal, inside and outside with no clear distinction between these two polarities. But the Zero is also a clever, non-Euclidean experience that is about as close as the game ever comes to having something resembling a puzzle. Traversing the Zero requires relying on a sequence of symbols arranged like a combination lock, the nature of which speak to a pervasive ennui of this Dust Bowl-inspired slice of the South, and at least in part to a sense of American mysticism that floats coolly in the background behind more direct references to technology and geometry. Drive counter-clockwise to the bottle. Turn around. Drive clockwise to the still. Though navigating the Zero's loops can occasionally be confusing, players always have the option to allow the ailing Conway to rest for a while, giving the steering wheel over to Shannon and restarting the truck back at the Bureau. Additionally, players who enjoy exploring around may run across a brochure for the Bureau of Secret Tourism, which notes several peculiar roadside attractions along the Zero that players can visit in the format of simple text adventures, just as they could along the winding Kentucky streets of Act I.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act IIAs with Act I, Act II also continues to build on the frequent use of theatrical tropes that make the game closer in nature to an interactive stage play. Players are introduced to Lula before Conway and Shannon are, for example, and the game is quick to provide a small slice of dramatic irony as the pair is directed in circles around the Bureau's punishingly Dickensian system of bureaucracy before they can meet with her. The movements of the characters through each scene is elegant, as are the sets and environments themselves. Players are positioned both actively and passively in their role, able to choose their own adventure, in a way, while occasionally looking down onto a scene from above, hidden in the scaffolds and rafters, or fixed some distance away as the story unfolds before them as if on the stage. Further, sound design is remarkable and expertly crafted in Kentucky Route Zero; a decent pair of headphones absolutely enhances the experience and brings life to many of its scenes and locales. Between discordant, if not upbeat, elevator muzak and somber electronic dirges, it is clear a great deal of care has been put into every aspect of the game's art direction. Perhaps most delightful of all is soundtrack composer Ben Babbitt's exceptionally beautiful arrangement of Long Journey Home, a Depression-era bluegrass traditional, that closes the act.

Fans of authors such as Gabriel García Márquez, James Joyce, and Mark Z. Danielewski will certainly be enthralled by the broad array of storytelling styles present in Act II. The writing is crisp and restrained, always thoughtful and occasionally dreamy. Players have a great range of freedom in choosing their own dialogue, though it's worth noting, however, that players should not expect this freedom to be exceptionally critical to the direction of the story. Indeed, the dialogue choices presented instead influence the nature and psyche of the characters themselves rather than the course they might be on. Depending on whether Conway or Shannon speaks at length with Lula at the Bureau, for example, will determine if she reminisces about an old lover or a long-lost friend. Much as in Act I, players can keenly develop Conway into a man penitent of his past, a literal and straightforward aging drunkard, or any number of personalities that work in tandem to make these characters feel rich and full and uniquely human.

Aside from the story at hand, the details of Kentucky Route Zero's narrative are not loud and brash things, instead lounging quietly in the background, waiting to be uncovered. There are many things to find and read and do in Act II, so many that even I've found new instances in various replays, which are almost required to experience the game to its fullest. A quick playthrough clocks in at around an hour or two, though searching for details or admiring the scenery may add on a few more, and another replay may add a few more after that. It is a game certainly worth the time it so gently asks of its players, and still more content yet remains on the horizon.



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