Kenshi is an RPG developed and released by Lo-Fi Games in 2018. At first, the game is hostile, the user interface is clunky and confusing, and the graphics are unoptimized, making even a high-end desktop chug at times. But once the player gets over those hurdles, the game opens up to show nearly limitless role-play possibilities, and enough lore to make The Elder Scrolls blush.
You are not special
In Skyrim, you take on the role of The Dragonborn, and you must slay Alduin as the prophecy foretold. In The Witcher, you are Geralt of Rivia, a monster slayer for hire caught in the battle between powerful realms. In Kenshi, you are some guy (or girl). When you first start a game and create a character, you get to pick a race, a gender, and a four sentence long backstory. From there on, it’s up to you to discover the world of Kenshi through books and characters, and it’s also up to you to shape your own story. This game is best discovered by playing it, but here’s the world you’re dropped in: some sort of apocalyptic cataclysm happened, hostile and alien biomes cover the map, and the inhabitants are thrown back to the medieval ages. No guns, only swords and crossbows. With that in mind, you can decide to ally yourself with one of the major factions and set up an armor shop in some corner of the map, you can become a lone bounty hunter, or you can destroy every single faction by creating your own. I’ll talk more about gameplay/roleplay choices in the next paragraph, let’s go back to the story. In my introduction, I mentioned an incredibly large lore, which is no understatement. Cities, factions, beasts, monsters, unique characters, the world itself; some have an explanation which can be found in books left behind by previous civilizations, and others bare an aura of mystery. The lore of the game can be very hard to access, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who’s playing. In order to find books and learn more about the world, the player may need to travel all the way across the map to talk to an elusive character, or to sneak inside the room of a high-ranking noble. Such a mechanic can be good, because it gives another incentive to explore, and players that don’t care about the story can fully avoid it. However, for players who are used to more direct storytelling, it can be frustrating to have a hard time simply learning about their environment. Another notable aspect of Kenshi‘s storytelling is the mystery behind everything. Sure a lot of things are explained, but most explanations are mostly hinted at. For example, Hiver is one of the in-game races, both for the player and NPCs. They are humanoid insects that obey to their queen via a hive mind, and are known for trading bootleg gear and alcohol. But how did they come to existence? Did they mutate from humans, or were they created by another entity? Kenshi brings up more questions than it gives answers, leading players to make up their own explanations about the world around them.
You are not special (Continued)
Kenshi is all about player choice. I mentioned earlier that you can do pretty much whatever you’d like to do in a feudal-inspired post-apocalyptic world, That level of liberty stems from two gameplay mechanics; skills and faction building. Leveling up skills is as old as the RPG genre itself, and Kenshi implements it with a twist. In most other RPGs, you level up by successfully doing things. Killing enemies, sneaking, trading, etc. In Kenshi, you level up by failing. You pick a fight with some hired guards and get beaten unconscious? You now have higher toughness and dodging skills. You sneak around at night, try to steal some food, but clumsily make noise and get caught? Your odds of getting caught are now lower. Such a leveling system makes it so that you can’t level up a skill by endlessly doing an easy task. The game never truly becomes easy because you always have to seek out difficult tasks in order to level up. Faction building is another integral part of the game. Throughout the game, you’ll meet different NPCs which can be hired to join your own group, or will join because of personal reasons. But when they join the player’s faction, NPCs don’t become companions, they become player characters. What that means is that when there is more than one person in your team, you can take control of different characters. That gameplay mechanic, on its own, would be a hassle. However, it becomes a force multiplier in combat, and a quality of life improvement when the player builds an outpost, as you can assign characters to jobs and automate different tasks. And because Kenshi’s focus is on freedom, the outpost can serve any purpose. You can build a multi-purpose base, with training grounds, an armory to craft armor and weapons, a shop, a distillery, a farm to feed your troops, or a combination of some of those. But having an outpost can have its cons. Raiders will occasionally come to demand money, and should you anger a major faction, they will send people to correct the wrong you’ve caused. You can also go solo and sleep in rented beds, but that increases the difficulty tenfold. All in all, such a level of liberty makes for a unique and almost exemplary RPG.. once you get over certain hurdles.
Kenshi has great things going for it and can even become addictive. However, it has some flaws which can make the first few hours of gameplay confusing and possibly frustrating. The HUD takes up nearly a third of the screen, and is nothing short of intimidating. It’s blocky, brown and green, and filled to the brim with buttons and stats. Clicking on buttons brings up even more stats and ends up looking like an Excel graph. Another turn-off is the lack of guidance. You don’t start with a quest or a goal. You’re free to do whatever you want from the start. And when a new player starts playing the game for the first time, not knowing what possibilities are available to them, it feels like there is both nothing to do and too much to do. The first time I played Kenshi, I played for less than two hours and gave up. Some months later, I jumped back it after seeing extremely positive reviews, slogged through the first hours, and spent dozens of hours playing when I realized the scope of the game. It’s important to remember that the blocky HUD full of stats and buttons is the price to pay for maximum control over our characters and their story. Also, the game does feature a sort of tutorial in the form of a pop-up that shows up when you do something for the first time, like mining, fighting over a piece of beef jerky, losing a limb, and being sold into slavery (usually in that order). Overall, the HUD has a very steep learning curve, but once it’s been mastered, it becomes easy to glide through the menus and see the information you want.
Kenshi is a rough game, in both form and function. It’s unforgiving, difficult, and the first few hours are a slog. It’s also unoptimized; loading takes a long time, FPS sometimes drops into the single digit range. On top of that, it’s buggy; saving often is recommended and developers have thankfully made the debug tool easily accessible. But as I said before, all of those things are the price to pay to have unbridled freedom in an indie RPG. Clearly, Kenshi has proven its potential, as Lo-Fi Games is already working on a prequel to the original. If the studio corrects the bugs, smooths off the rough edges, and improves on what was already great, Kenshi 2 will have all it takes to rival AAA RPGs.