This kind of game is difficult to get right for even the biggest company, let alone a small indie dev. On that regard, Kenshi has surpassed so many expectations. But how good is Kenshi? Let’s find out.
I bought this game in 2014, and I decided to hold off on it until things became more developed. With the game hitting 1.0 officially in December 2018, and with over 190 hours in Kenshi at the time of writing, I figured a review was needed for this mysterious indie gem.
Kenshi feels like a twisted mix of games a child would dream up as the ideal video game. Is it the ideal video game? No, and I’ll cover Kenshi’s extensive flaws later, but it makes one hell of an attempt, and it is tough to find a game on the market quite like Kenshi.
I am a huge fan of open-ended sandboxes where you can just do what you want, but very few seem to do this right. This was made by a very small development team and I could tell as soon as I bought it that it was a game worth supporting. Even if it didn’t go much further, I could afford to spend 10-15$ on it. I have a lot of respect for anyone who can make a game, particularly in this day and age when there is just so much competition. The indie market is booming and with it a lot of the stigma attached to indie developers is fading, as AAA titles continue to frustrate consumers with their practices. It’s the right time to get into indie games.
Kenshi’s development was slow at first, and originally I did wonder if it was ever going to reach a stage where I would go into it and play it. But they did it.
Kenshi reminds me a lot like Mount and Blade Warband, another game which I bloody adore. On the surface, Kenshi feels like a rough experiment. The graphics look like shit, if you want my honest opinion. It looks and feels bloaty, the engine is buggy and badly optimized, there is no voice acting and no true narrative exists. What’s shocking is how little of this matters when it comes to Kenshi. It should be a bad game with how much it crams in. Parts of the game make me think it’s still an alpha version, and there’s some severe problems, but man. . .I love it. It’s an amazing role-playing sandbox.
You are given a massive open-ended map (And I mean it’s huge. 870 square km), full of varied biomes, different factions, and you’re shoved outside into the game. Go and enjoy. Make your own story. It gives you almost nothing to work with and the beginning is frustrating. It’s also tough. You will die a lot.
There isn’t really a big narrative or story to do in Kenshi. There is a ton of well crafted lore in the game world of course, but nothing for you to follow. You really need to have some level of creative thinking to get the most out of this game. It’s a role playing game at its purest level. You need to spend a lot of time with this game, it’s certainly not for the faint hearted. You need to have patience in dealing with some semi-broken mechanics, long loading times as the engine chugs on its single-core, and handle a lot of rough elements. What lies under the rough surface is a game of surprising complexity and depth, and what begins as a rough ride becomes fascinating, and oddly addicting.
The open sandbox of Kenshi is its biggest strength, with a literal torrent of things to do. It might not be pretty to look at but its mechanics are incredible. I don’t understand how this game manages to fit in so many different genres and play-styles at once like some twisted experiment. Some of them don’t work at times, others are buggy, but for a game to do all this at once, and do a decent job overall, is seriously impressive and deserves recognition.
You can build your own settlements, hire mercenaries, enslave NPCs to do your bidding, form your own company. The learning mechanics are brilliant, with so many ways to train your characters. You have guilds to join, shit to steal, crops to grow. It’s not so much a game but as a world to craft your own experience, with a story development on par with Rimworld. It has an awesome body system as well. You get smashed in a fight? You will limp around until you can fix it. I get my leg cut off…just read the description here from Kenshi’s own page on Steam:
A character with a wounded leg will limp or crawl and slow the party down, wounded arms means you must use your sword one-handed or not at all. Severe injuries will result in amputees needing robotic limb replacements. Blood loss means you can pass out, and the blood will attract predators. A character’s stats are affected by equipment, encumbrance, blood loss, injuries and starvation.
This game gives zero shits about you, but it is also surprisingly accessible. While the game is perma death, getting into fights is the easiest way to get stronger, and your characters level up naturally with a ton of different skills. If you get put in jail, you get healed up and fed while you struggle to break out. Everything you do improves your stats in some way, so don’t shy away from tough situations. The games systems are easy to exploit and easy to break, but doing so will make parts of the game lose its aura.
Building a settlement is hard. You get to research all sorts of things with a research bench and the right materials, but the game punishes you when you start setting out on your own. You’ll get attacked by enemies on a bullshit degree, factions will come demanding tax money, bandits will demand food or money to leave you alone, and don’t get me started on the Holy Nation. My current 30 hour play-through is dedicated to a group of plucky souls building an army to destroy them.
There are plenty of factions to play with, all with different styles. The Skeletons don’t need to eat, but can’t heal themselves without expensive Repair Kits and are hated by nearly everyone. The United Cities are a corrupt, slavers paradise. The Sheks are a warrior kingdom who look down on smuggling drugs (But you can make lots of money if you don’t get caught by their smuggling checks), while the Holy Nation are racist fanatics with a powerful belief in religion and purity. I hate those guys.
Oh, and cannibals. There are lots of those.
This is one of the most impressive indie games I have seen in a long time. You can play it as an RPG, a city builder, a fighting game and a stealth game, and do a pretty damn good job in all of them. I’ve rarely seen that in gaming. However, it’s not perfect.
If it sounds like I’m gushing, I’m not, and I’m willing to talk about Kenshi’s problems. Kenshi has some pretty glaring flaws, and if you’re one of those guys who want good optimization and things to look pretty, then you’re going to have an unpleasant day. It’s buggy, chugs harder than a train on National Rail, ugly, and lacks a general direction, certainly. At times it plays like a pre-alpha tech demo. Even now, there’s still quite a few bugs, and micromanaging your party after a certain point becomes frustrating. There’s only so much mods can fix.
Do I wish it wasn’t as unstable at times? Yes. Do I regret my time with Kenshi? Not at all.
Despite Kenshi’s several significant issues, I mean it when I say this is one of those endless experiences that deserves a chance. I can see myself writing a new novel just from my roleplaying experiences in this game. With an extensive modding scene, we might see some really impressive things in the future.
I will caution this: while there is a healthy modding scene, the tools themselves are limited. While this is a shame, you can fix a lot of base problems in Kenshi already through mods, and the game has been successful enough for the devs to make a sequel, with any engine fixes and improvements to be made to the original Kenshi.
Now, let’s go to the fun part: pros and cons!
- A vast and expansive open world, crammed with places to go
- While the AI system is crude, it does its job relatively well
- Great combat with a deep body damage system
- The steep and at times unforgiving learning curve is satisfying to overcome, even if it takes dozens of hours
- Despite some visual problems, The game looks great on occasion, with some impressive landscapes
- Well written factions, with extensive lore to explore
- A large quantity of mods that add even more mechanics, game starts and factions.
- The early game is brutal, and with very few tutorials and handholding, it might turn some players off.
- Frequent long loading times, even on an SSD
- A fair few bugs, glitches and crashes. Not the most stable game out there
- Ugly environments and graphics for the most part
- Much of the open world is feature-sparse desert.
- Buggy pathfinding at times.
- The party management is obtuse when you get to more than 30 members.
- A vast and well designed open world
- A deep combat system
- Endless options for customization and replayability
- Potential to lose thousands of hours of your life
- Poor optimization
- Lots of bugs
- A brutal early game will turn a lot of people off
FINAL SCORE AND CLOSING THOUGHTS
Kenshi is a hard game to give a score. It has flaws, and a lot of them, but there are few games like this on the market. I’d give this game a 8/10 overall, with the bugginess and at times annoying loading bringing down its score.
The game is not for everyone, but I still recommend you all give it a good go. I play Kenshi zoomed in with my characters, making it more like a close-third person RPG than a top-down strategy game. I suggest you try it out that way as well.