Kenshi had been on my Steam wishlist for, literally, years. It was initially placed there because of the promise of a sandbox RPG, at a time when just those two terms got you on my wishlist. I never pulled the trigger on buying for a variety of reasons, the main two being the graphics style didn’t look appealing and the game always felt a long ways off from being complete.
In December 2018 Kenshi was released from Early Access, but I still didn’t pull the trigger. Finally this last holiday sale I did, truthfully in no small part because I had the $5 off coupon. Since initially loading it up I’ve become obsessed with the game in a way I haven’t been since maybe Life is Feudal?
It’s hard to go over everything that I love about Kenshi, because a lot of those loves are deep rooted personal appeal rather than general enjoyable game design. For example, the fact that I mined copper for hours initially, in a very EVE-like “go to ore, watch character mine, haul ore back to drop-off, repeat” way was a major plus for me. I could see others absolutely hating it. Reason I love it is that it’s a slow build to something bigger, much like building up ISK in EVE to get a better mining ship is. I sold that copper at the local NPC shop to get funds to buy a small shack, then buy building materials to fix said shack, and then hired the first of many companions from the local bar to help with mining. I also had to run to the town guards when anything threatening came by, as your starting character is the weakest living thing in the world.
The world setting itself is best describes as Mad Max mixed with Feudal Japan. Katanas and samurai, but also robots and wind generators. It’s a unique feeling world, one that is very post-apocalypse, but at the same time very alien. I don’t know the deeper lore behind it yet, but the initial look and feel of it is like nothing else.
To keep the theme of Kenshi being the single-player, on-world version of EVE going, the UI is both powerful and a total nightmare. When you first start, you get some minor tutorial tips, but they aren’t enough to help you actually play the game. The ‘how do I undock’ of EVE! I had to read a guide on what to do in the first 30 minutes and how to actually do it. But after that initially 30 minutes, things start coming together. Until you hit the next complex system, and then its more trial-and-error, but at that point I’m enjoying myself rather than feeling frustrated.
For example, once you have a house and get into building/crafting, you can build a copper ore storage box. Once you have that, you can assign your character to go out to the copper node, mine until full, and then assign them to drop the ore off in the box. If you enable them doing their “job”, they will repeat this process until they can’t (storage is full, copper node is busy, a fight breaks out, etc). This is easy to set up once you know how, and the RTS-style gameplay starts to immerge. In my game right now (day 28), I have 13 people, and all 13 have different job queues I regularly turn on/off, and making sure the whole production chain doesn’t get ‘stuck’ is an ongoing challenge.
The AI is also smart in a lot of ways. For example, if you build a food storage box, any character that needs to eat will take a break from their job to grab a meal, eat, and return to work. You can also queue up many different jobs, and the character will attempt to do them in priority order. I have one character who is queued to build everything as his top priority (and the AI is smart enough that the character will run and grab whatever building materials they need if available), with his second priority to tend to a few farms (cactus, wheat, hemp), and finally to mine copper. What this means is that he normally mines copper, but if a farm needs water or to be harvested, he stops mining and does that. He will also drop everything and build if I add anything to be build in the base. It’s wonderful to see that all come together, but did take a little time to understand queue order and what exact job to assign.
Back to the bigger picture, Kenshi is a game about living in the world. There is no main questline to defeat the big bad, there are no specific in-game goals to achieve, and there really isn’t a standard progression path. If you want to become a master thief, sneaking into towns, stealing what you can, and escaping to fence the goods until you are filthy rich, you can do that (or try). If you want to become a legendary fighter, you can try that as well, roaming the world in search of combat. If you want to run a merchant guild in an NPC town, having workers making goods and selling them, you can do that. Or you can build your own outpost/town, harvesting resources, and maybe eventually become a major power and fighting wars directly with the other major factions. Of course you can do all those together as well; you can have that master thief be one of your characters, have a hardened group of fighters that explore and loot ruins of lost treasure, all while having a large population live and work out of your town, defending against bandits and other rivals.
To return to my current game, managing my 13 people overall is like playing an RTS. Gotta make sure we produce enough food, gotta produce new and better weapons, gotta keep researching new tech, etc. But in quiet times, I can let the RTS mostly run itself and go off with a smaller group of characters to loot a ruin, or do a trade run to an NPC town. Or just explore the amazingly huge map (Kenshi might have the largest single zone world I’ve ever seen in a game, even if much of it is desolate and unoccupied.)
Combat is a big aspect of Kenshi, and is also somewhat different from other games. You mostly don’t control what happens outside of assigning who attacks who ala an RTS, but how gear and stats play into combat, and what the results mean, are really interesting. For stats, you have general stats like Strength, Dexterity, Durability, etc. You then have a Melee Attack and Melee Defense skill. Finally you have individual weapon skills. All stats and skills are raised by doing. So to get better at melee attack and a katana, you need to swing your katana at someone. To raise your durability stat, you need to take damage. Your starting character, who can’t do basically anything related to combat, is going to ‘grow’ quickly as they get beat up by starving bandits or the like, take so much damage to different body parts that they pass out. Hopefully you have another character who can bandage them up to stop you from bleeding to death, hopefully you didn’t lose a limb, and then you’ll spend some time recovering, which is faster in a bed than laying on the ground. Damaged limbs don’t work, or work less. So a character with heavy damage to a leg will limp and move slowly, a damaged arm can’t be used to fight or work, and the character will hold their stomach if your torso is beat up. Everything bleeds, so large battles turn the ground red, and result in lots of bodies crawling around, badly damaged, while others likely lost a leg or an arm. It’s epic in its scale, and awesome that each individual involved is a unique character rather then a generic footman unit like in say Mount and Blade.
Gear options are plentiful and come with many benefits and penalties. Item slots are limited to torso and head armor, and then torso, leg, and feet clothing, but clothing can also be a second layer of armor (like a chain shirt). Heavier armor protects the best, but weighs a lot and generally has penalties to your offense. Some armor, like a heart protector, will do a great job of keeping your chest protected, but won’t do anything for your arms. There is also more specialized armor pieces, and everything has a quality rating, starting at protoype (the worst) to Cross, who is some ancient smith of legend (according to the wiki, never seen anything close to that myself yet).
Same goes for weapons. Larger weapons hit harder but are slower and don’t work well indoors, plus are generally harder to use. Some weapons cause more bleeding, others have armor penetration bonuses or penalties. Weapons can also have a bonus or penalty to different kinds of creatures. In short, there is a lot to consider with your gear choices, far above “higher dps = better”.
To finish what is already a long and still incomplete review (I didn’t get into crafting, or world events, or trading, or exploring, or enemy types, or biomes, or anything I might experience further into my short time with the game), story time:
I established an outpost, building a smaller house and some basic production buildings with my 8 characters, most of who were pretty new and not skilled at anything. We would always struggle against any group of 5+ starving bandits (the easiest enemy in the game), which meant that I needed to hide one character during an attack, and once my other characters were beaten and unconscious, and the bandits had looted what they wanted, my coward character would sneak out to start bandaging everyone up before someone bleed to death.
This vicious cycle continued for some time, but with each fight my characters got a little stronger, and we would do a little better, at least against starving bandits. Anything harder that also came by decimated us nearly instantly. We build some much-needed beds, so recovery would happen there instead of on the cold hard ground. Post battle standing characters carrying those who were not to lay in the bed to recover. In between beatings, we made money and used that to build more things and maybe get some better armor/weapons for our better fighters. It was a hard life. Some lost limbs, some died and new hires replaced them, but each day we inched forward and got just a little bit stronger.
And then one day a group of 7 starving bandits came, and after a bloody battle, my side was the winner. Most of my team were down, but two stood standing. It was awesome. Recovery was faster, and we were able to loot the crude clubs and rags off the bandits. It wasn’t much of a victory, but it was infinitely better than defeat.
We would go on to defeat bigger groups of bandits, until they began to feel like the weaklings we once were, easily cut down with minimal effort or injury. We were riding high, and then a group from a major faction came to our outpost demanding our food as tribute. I told them to piss off. They said they would return in 24 hours. Fine. I went out and hired a mercenary company from a bar in the local NPC town. 8 tough fighters, plus my own group of now 13, some who now had reasonable fighting skills. The faction troops arrive, just 15 of them. We had the numbers, maybe this won’t be so bad? They butchered us and butchered the mercs. We barely injured them, with not a single man fully going down. It was a harsh reality check on our position in the world. Next time, we were handing over our food as tribute.
On the plus side, once my thief recovered enough to walk, he snuck over to the mercs who were still knocked out and stole their weapons and armor. A small victory in a sea of defeat!
Welcome to Kenshi, a world of a million stories, big and small.