If you look up “passion project” in the encyclopedia, you might just see a picture of the game Kenshi. And yes, I mean encyclopedia, not wikipedia. The game was in development long enough it might have been listed in one of those when they were still a thing. I don’t necessarily mean that at as a criticism. In fact it’s admirable that Lo-Fi Games’ founder, Chris Hunt, has accomplished what he has, starting out as a nightclub bouncer and tenaciously clinging to his dream of developing a game. He began Lo-Fi studios alone and it was 6 years into production before he was able to hire the small team to finish development of his title, a title with overwhelmingly positive ratings on Steam with no small number of reviews. Kenshi is inarguably a cult favorite within its community. All that being said, I feel it very important to point out this is a very niche game, and it will not necessarily have appeal for everyone.
Kenshi is not a game for the faint at heart. You will die. In fact, the entire point of the game is survival, but you will fail. There’s no story beyond any headcanon you create. The tutorial is essentially click-through popups that occur when you encounter a new aspect of the game, such as creating or buying buildings, or being knocked out. Which you will do, right before you die. Kenshi is the definitive sandbox experience. You’re given a fairly good sized map to do the things on. What those things are is, relatively, up to you.
Bounty hunting is one of the many professions of Kenshi. Others include farming, thievery, soldiery, and mining, plus many others.
This is, however, where one of my first criticisms comes in. Kenshi is by design unforgiving. In the standard experience, you are a solitary wanderer with some basic clothing and a stick. The game’s profile and trailer suggest a myriad number of ways you can advance, and there’s even a “What to do” popup in game. Despite this, browsing around the community, there’s really only one or two ways to start out your survival.
Kenshi requires that your character eat to survive, but food is available only from shops, or by stealing it. You can’t go into the desert and kill a bunny, then cook it. You can’t go pick berries. You can’t do much of any foraging. In fact, for a survival game, your harvesting options at start are intensely limited. You can’t even chop trees. What can you do? You can mine for iron or copper, and then sell it to shops, then buy food. Most of the guides I looked at suggest spending a good 15-30 in game days doing this in the relatively safe proximity of a starting town, so that you can have enough Cats, the game’s monetary unit, in order to start playing. The other option, it seems, is to get captured by slavers and using this experience to increase some skills, like toughness and lockpicking. These skills increase by getting knocked out and for trying to pick the lock on your shackles, respectively.
Get ready for a grind.
Anyway, either of these methods is extremely grindy. Furthermore, there’s every likelihood that as you’re mining, which is very slow unless you use the game’s built in speed increase feature, you’ll encounter bandits or slavers who want to take what you have. Or just take you. In fact, in one of my playthroughs I was attacked by a wild animal while mining, and tried to run to town. It knocked me out though and left me bleeding in the middle of the road after apparently eating its fill of me. Before I was able to bleed out, an NPC wandering the road stopped and applied some first aid on me. Enough to stop me from bleeding out, anyway. Then the NPC walked off. Next thing I knew, some slavers found my unconscious body, slapped some shackles on me, and threw me over one of their shoulders.
I was carried around by the member of the slavers band for a good fifteen minutes while my chest wound healed up. Then I followed along behind the slavers for another half hour or so, hands off the keyboard, curious where they intended on taking me. Eventually I got bored of waiting, so I tried running away towards an iron vein, just to see if maybe my overlords wanted me to collect things for them. They assured me they did not by beating me unconscious again, then bandaging my wounds and once more I did my impression of a sack of potatoes. What ensued should have been accompanied by Yakety Sax.
The next time I ran away, I remembered to pick the lock on my shackles first and discard them. Then when I bolted I stayed just ahead of my captors, until I ran smack into a pack of bandits. The bandits began chasing me, joining the mob of slavers. I tried running towards a town, but the guards recognized me as a slave, and the next thing I know they’re chasing me as well. Cue fast forward antics involving scantily clad women and eyebrow waggling. Except the women have naginatas and are actually a race of warrior beast things that don’t even have eyebrows.
My next issue: the graphics on Kenshi unfortunately look a decade old. Given some of the earlier context I provided this shouldn’t come as any real surprise. There are a total of four races you can choose, two with subraces and two without. Each has their own lore and their own strengths and weaknesses (except the Greenlander subclass of humans, which only has benefits, though not many of them). You can do quite a bit of customization for your characters, but no matter what, they’re going to look about two or three generations behind most games.
The art style is great, but the graphics felt dated. For an indie game, they’re acceptable, but not fantastic.
I also didn’t feel very connected with the controls. They didn’t feel intuitive at all. Once I got used to them and basically just stayed centered on my character at all times they were passable, but definitely not the best thing ever. The music was middling. All in all just not a lot of frills.
There are some redeeming aspects of Kenshi. A lot of heart went into the design of the systems in this game, and it shows. You level up pretty much anything you do through attempts, whether you succeed or fail. Getting knocked out raises your toughness. Practicing on a wooden dummy will actually increase your combat ability. There’s a decent bit of building you can do, including research benches. Problem is, that all requires resources that are very hard to acquire. It’s almost like the game is broken into stages, and each stage is its own game. First the survival game, then the RTS fighting game, then the town building game.
The game does offer different starts to give you access to various places in the game’s progression.
Despite all of the negatives, Kenshi has an amazingly dedicated fanbase that has helped along the way with localization as well as a plethora of mods and community content. The dev team, tiny quartet that they are, is clearly dedicated to this title. As I said, it’s very obvious that Kenshi is and has long been a labor of love. I rate Kenshi 2.5 out of 5 on the grounds that, well, it just doesn’t shine in any particular department. That being said it’s clear that those who do appreciate the game do it with all their hearts, once again showing us that sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Lo-fi asks a paltry $18.99 for the title on Steam, which makes it a relatively low-risk investment. Give it a try, and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.