The AAA industry, in its effort to make its games as accessible as possible, maintains a streamlined experience for the players with simplified mechanics, a rigid storyline, and objectives or missions you have to accomplish before you can progress. While this doesn’t necessarily make for a terrible game, it restricts the players’ freedom of choice in doing what they want and hinders them from crafting unique stories for their characters. Free from the shackles that bind a Triple-A game, Lo-fi Games created with Kenshi a truly open-world experience where the only vital goal is survival, and there is nothing stopping you from making choices that will either prolong your life or condemn you to failure.
From zero to slightly more than zero
When he first designed this game, Chris Hunt had one goal in mind: to make his players suffer. Instead of handholding you like a caring mother, Kenshi leaves you to your fate like a neglectful father. Before you begin your foray into a world of pain, you must choose a beginning, or starting scenario. Depending on the beginning, you may start in a vestige of civilization with a shoddy set of equipment, or you may start at absolute rock bottom in the middle of nowhere; but hey, at least you still have three limbs in that start.
There are some tutorial messages that will pop up to help you orientate yourself in the game, but outside of that, you’re on your own; you’ll be told to start earning some money, but you won’t be directed to the nearest help wanted sign. You’re gonna have to go out there and start figuring out what to do, likely with only a single character at your control.
Perhaps you’ll attempt to take up mining. That’s great! Sure, it takes over a minute of mining for a single chunk of copper and you’re at risk of dying from either exposure or a rusty katana, but at least you’ll finally be able to purchase that delectable foodcube the barkeep is offering you out of pity. But let’s say you’re breaking your back out on that copper rock and up comes an emancipated bandit with an iron stick of unknown origins. Well, you’re screwed.
See, in Kenshi, you aren’t an overpowered hero capable of taking on Holy Lord Phoenix himself. You start off like any average Joe, barely capable of handling a starving bandit on their own. Your character has attributes like strength and toughness that determine how well you will fare in combat, as well as skills of various kinds that range from your ability to wield a polearm to whether or not you’re capable of boiling a greenfruit long enough to not induce projectile vomiting.
Although each skill and attribute has their own methods of leveling them up (to level swimming, you must go swimming. Go figure.), there is really only one way to get your character to become stronger at the start: get beaten up. Most bandits aren’t out to kill you as they really just want whatever food or money you have on hand. The outcome of your first fights will be along the lines of you getting a few hits in, them getting a few hits in with their superior stats, and you lying unconscious in the dirt while the bandit limps toward the nearest foodcube dispensary.
Despite being beaten like a middle schooler transferring their lunch money privilege to his bully, those few hits you managed to get in will level strength or dexterity and your weapon skill, and every clubbing or slice of a blade you endured will level up your toughness. So while you’re getting your rear handed to you today, the next time you face that bandit again, it will be you who will be snatching that foodcube money. And hopefully, as you train more and more, you’ll begin to be able to take on tougher and tougher opponents. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to become more than just a scavenging cutthroat and be able to take on powerful figures whose disposal would induce changes to the world around you. But if you’re going to try that, you’re going to need some help.
Strength in numbers
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. You will likely be spending a considerable amount of time at the start with a single character, but once you expand your party through recruitment, it’s almost like a different game. Instead of focusing on a single character, you’ll be managing the lives of multiple people, ensuring that they do their jobs, get fed, and stay more or less alive. It’s definitely no easy task considering that at any point in time, your one miner a few kilometers from the rest of your squad could be in the process of forfeiting their epidermis to a horde of cannibals. Still, even if you don’t plan of having every member of your crew participate in a human wave attack, there is one vital advantage that separates you from a society that hunts berries and gathers bison: division of labor, baby.
Survival ain’t easy, and there are far too many tasks that a semi-functional community requires to be done for one man (or woman; we aren’t the Holy Nation!) to undertake alone. When you get to the point where you can begin to wean off the reliance of your local townships, you’ll need to decide on who does what, as many activities you can do require their own skill which is best to have specialized by a few party members. For a relatively thriving community to, well, relatively thrive, you’ll need farmers, a cook (or at least someone with a maximum food poisoning rate of 30%), a smith for armor and weapons, laborers for mining and various other slave work, researchers, and of course, guards. It takes time to develop skills in Kenshi—though I doubt you’ll have trouble with leveling athletics—but the difference between a crappy sabre scavenged off a bandit versus a homemade masterwork version of that exact weapon is night and day. If you want to create a self-sufficient community, however, you can’t just start one in the middle of a preexisting town or village; you’ll need to create a base!
Base building is a core aspect of Kenshi, but not one you can effectively do early in the game. I mean, you could try starting a base or outpost, but if you can’t fend off a roving pack of bandits yet, you should probably hold off on that. To start building, you’ll need to research stuff like how to build walls, types of buildings, and many other home essentials. You do this through a research bench with the use of blueprints. Once you believe you got enough supplies, set up your caravan and venture forth into the wilds to claim a site for your new home.
To describe the world of Kenshi, it is a land of many biomes, with the quality of life ranging from “could be worse,” depressing, terrible, horrible, and “dear God why did I choose to go here.” Not to criticize the work of Mr. Hunt, but I wouldn’t exactly be looking for the Cannibals Plains on the front cover of a vacation brochure. Why is it called the Cannibal Plains? Because it has cannibals. If that’s not your idea of paradise, then fret not: you also have the Floodlands, a place where it never stops raining; the Deadlands, where it also never stops raining except the rain will burn away your body like how erosion did away the Grand Canyon; Venge, which I highly suggest you only travel through at night; and the Great Desert, where the nearest excuse for civilization is just a few slaver parties away. Truly a wonderful topography.
But you have to choose someplace to settle, right? Thankfully, those locations I rattled about are just a few of the extremes. There are places in the world that are viable for rational lifeforms, potentially even paradise for Kenshi’s standards. However, those lands are typically owned by a faction, and if you settle in a faction’s territory, you gotta play by their rules. For example, the United Cities will welcome your humble settlement with open arms so long as you pay the tax collector a weekly sum of 3000 buckaroos. Fail to do this and he will condemn you with the crime of being poor. Have fun with the samurai police. Likewise, even areas with considerably less environmental hazards will hold challenges of their own, usually in the form of dealing with the local factions. So what do you do if you don’t want to kowtow to the United Cities’ emperor? The answer is simple: just kill the emperor!
Engaging in entropy
The world is alive. The bandits don’t just stand around waiting for someone to pass by them. The factions don’t stay within their own walls and do nothing all day. Patrols will be sent across roads, raids will be conducted against cities, cannibals will be cannibals. (I’m sure my disdain of them is apparent by now.) You will see many conflicts occur throughout Kenshi’s lands even if you never did anything to fuel them. Factions may like, tolerate, or hate the everlasting crap out of another faction. The same may apply to you too; depending on your actions, your reputation with a faction may increase or plummet, the latter of which could result in a faction’s members immediately attacking you on sight. It’s a constant state of turmoil, but you may notice that the fighting is rather low-intensity. Skirmishes may occur, but the Holy Nation will never muster the power to completely destroy the Shek Kingdom. That is, however, not taking into account the player.
Whenever you do something drastic like incapacitate an important figure for a faction or commit genocide against a town’s population, you’re participating in the world states system. World states are changes to the world that were instigated by your actions. The most apparent changes are town overrides, where a town can end up being destroyed or taken over by a different faction. Or perhaps the patrols of a faction will disappear or be replaced by a different faction’s patrols. Your base may be assaulted by the former members of a dissipated faction or even be challenged by an overriding faction.
The best part? The game never tells you that you have to do any of this, or that it’s even possible. You don’t start out with any form of exposition about the world; if you want to learn anything, you gotta go out there and explore. Nothing is mandatory to do; you can get by the entire game without ever meeting the leaders of any faction. This is your story, and it’s up to you on how you want it to play out, whether you just want your base to be a peaceful (or relatively so) farming village or the base of operations of a massive war party.
I’ll be real with you, Chris: I would never want to live in this hellhole of a world. But Kenshi offers an experience where you have the agency to do virtually whatever you want. Kill off your entire party in a doom-driven battle? Go right on ahead. Forcibly remove a major faction’s leader? Try if you dare. It may not be a pretty game, but the breadth and depth of the in-game mechanics provide plenty of playstyles for a fan of this game to spend hundreds of hours having fun in. The next time I start a new game, I know I will be guaranteed to have a different experience from my last playthrough. And that’s the joys of Kenshi: to explore, to suffer, to adapt, to overcome. Just try not to go crazy with the mods you install.
Kenshi can be purchased on Steam here.