This is my debut to Grimdark Magazine! Michael here, and I’ve been brought in as the gaming guru. I might print that on a T-Shirt someday. My first article covers a fantastic indie game in Kenshi.
In the world of gaming, the indie world has grown considerably in scope and talent, especially over the last few years. The gap is slowly closing, and many of my favorite games ever made in recent years have been games developed by smaller studios. Usually when I talk to people about indie games, it goes like this:
Me: What’s your favorite indie game?
Them: I love games like Stardew Valley! Do you have any to recommend?
Me: You might like Kenshi.
Them: What’s Kenshi? I’ve never heard of it
That’s reasonable. Kenshi is a weird game to recommend to people. It was one of the first games approved on Steam’s Greenlight program, and one of the first Early Access titles as well to join the program. After several years of development, it rose from the ashes, fully releasing at the end of 2018. Since then, it’s grown even stronger, with a sequel in development. While it’s sold well and has had fantastic reviews overall, I rarely hear my circles talk about it. To many out there, Kenshi is a hidden gem. I’m here today to try and change that. With over 200 hours played in this game and counting, hopefully I know enough to try and convince you all to try this out.
It’s a strange game, and I can’t think of many rivals that do anything Kenshi does. It feels like the kind of twisted, dream game I would invent in my head when younger as the ideal game to exist in the world. Now, is Kenshi ideal for everyone? Of course not. All games have flaws, and Kenshi has plenty of those, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the most fascinating, open ended games on the market today.
I first bought Kenshi in 2014, back when there wasn’t a lot happening. Kenshi was made by a very small team, Lofi Games. They’ve come from humble beginnings, and for a while, Kenshi seemed like an experiment that wouldn’t quite make it. The indie market is booming now, but there’s still a stigma attached to the scene: every time an ambitious game comes out, there’s always daggers hanging over their heads. Will they succeed? Can I trust them after being burnt by this other game? It takes a lot to place trust into someone. I have the highest respect for anyone who gets into game development, especially when there’s so much competition.
Whenever people ask me what the ‘best’ indie games are on the market, I always think of a small selection of highly curated, S-tier titles. I have my own criteria for this, and it’s a project I’ve been working on for months, but Kenshi is part of this category.
At first glance, Kenshi looks like a psychotic, twisted experiment. The game looks rough, with a graphics engine which barely holds itself together under its many systems. There’s plenty of bugs, the optimization is rough and loading times are slow. There’s a steep learning curve involved and the player needs to be able to make their own narrative. It’s one of those games. There’s so many parts to Kenshi, so many types. It’s an exploration game. It’s a fighting game. It’s an open world RPG. It’s a squad-based sandbox. There are city building and survival elements. It shouldn’t work, and it nearly doesn’t, yet somehow Kenshi pulls it off. It doesn’t achieve everything, but there’s a brilliance to it.
Kenshi has a fairly simple premise. The world has been recently destroyed by mysterious means, and what remains is a shell of what it once was. There’s a massive, open world map full of lore, different biomes and factions, and the player is thrown right into the middle. There’s a few different starts a player can begin with, such as a solo start, a small group with building materials, a smuggler, or a trader. There’s plenty of modded starts available, but I’ll get to the modding potential soon. There’s an in-game set of tutorials that help early on, but the player is mostly left to their own devices.
The start of Kenshi can be rough. There’s no starting quest or story to follow. There’s plenty of lore locked inside the world, but the player is left to their own creativity to work out what to do. For my many fellow writers out there, I find Kenshi to be one of the best games for storycrafting, because it forces me to create my own narrative. Even with the tutorials, the ancient interface makes the beginning difficult. Kenshi has plenty of dangers out there and survival mechanics. Many things in the game are fatal. Those beaky giraffes? Have fun while they bite your characters to death. Those sheep? Stay away from them. I’m not kidding. I’ve lost entire parties to a herd of rams before. Those cannibals? They will eat you. The Skin Bandits just want your skin, peeling it off with machines. See why Kenshi is a little grimdark? No wonder I picked this to review!
Kenshi requires patience, and not everyone will enjoy that. There’s plenty of mechanics which struggle to make themselves heard, and the game has incredibly long loading times due to its old and buggy engine. I recommend installing this on a solid state drive, and even then, loading times will be long. Be prepared for some frustrations on the technical side. I had some issues early on, but Kenshi is oozing with depth and charm.
At its heart, Kenshi describes itself as a squad-based sandbox game, but that’s putting it lightly. I don’t get how this game squeezes in so many different play-styles and game types, but it somehow works. It’s a miracle how ambitious it is. There’s settlement building, survival mechanics where the characters need food to live, form a mercenary company, farming and mining. While the tutorials are only basic, learning from trial and error is fantastic, and this comes with an excellent combat system. If the characters get smashed up in battle, they can be fixed up. Character stats get improved only through doing them; so if you want strong guys, they need to get stuck into fighting. Limbs will be cut off, arms will be lost. Fortunately, there’s a booming limb replacement business in the Kenshi world, so even these losses aren’t crippling.
Kenshi is difficult, but it’s also surprisingly forgiving at the same time. The game is permadeath, but it’s a good idea to get stuck into battle. If characters get enslaved or imprisoned by different factions, that’s a blessing in disguise. Free healing and feeding! Some of these mechanics are easy to break, but the world allows that, so feel free to experiment.
There are several different factions in the game, but I’ll just cover the major ones. The Skeletons require no food to survive, but are despised by the Holy Nation who will attack them on sight and injuries cannot be healed normally. They require specialized kits which are expensive. The Holy Nation are zealots who hate everyone, require prayers every day, and will mess up everyone who disagrees with them. United Cities are all about money, money, money. Sheks are powerful warriors who demand food as payment and will kill anyone who smuggles drugs. The Hivers are fragile, insect-human people but will attack in great numbers. Making a settlement in anyone’s lands comes at a cost. The Holy Nation will come demanding tribute, Sheks demand food supplies, and United Cities require payments.
Onto settlement building, this is one of the key parts of Kenshi. I’d recommend building up a party and resources before attempting this, because it’s hard. There’s a large tech tree to unlock with research, which is expensive and time consuming, as well as plenty of things to build. Setting out and making towns is one of the coolest parts of the game, and there’s even some kind of persistent progression. In future playthroughs, there’s the option to keep all buildings in the world, so it’s possible to come across old cities you’ve created. There’s plenty of micromanagement trying to set up a good defense and holding off attacks: bandits and cannibal parties will come knocking frequently.
A Narrative Masterpiece
If hunkering down and making a settlement doesn’t sound appealing, don’t do that. Kenshi is so open ended that you can do pretty much whatever you like. I spent over seventy hours in a single playthrough just exploring the world and building a narrative. My most recent run told the story of two runaways: Khronin and lost robot Viro-V4, who formed an unlikely friendship and began their journey of redemption. Over many days of exploring the ruined world, they recruited more lost souls and built up their strength:
Khronin stands before the Shek leader’s throne. After several day’s travel, he and Viro-V4 have found some place to rest, even if it’s temporary.
Viro-V4 spent more nights alone with his thoughts. War with the Holy Nation will be difficult, be he needs to do everything he can to survive.
While hiding in the Shek lands, Khronin saved a Shek named Ruka from attack. The two agreed to join forces.
Over time, their army grew until they were strong enough to venture out to new lands. It’s time for justice! (Note the Dark UI. That’s a mod, and I highly recommend it!)
Kenshi has one of the most masterful open worlds I’ve ever experienced in a video game. There’s just so much variety in what to do that it’s almost overwhelming. I’ve rarely seen a game mesh with city-building, surviving, open world, combat and stealth mechanics so well together, even if it has to be brute forced at times.
It’s not well optimized, and the engine is buggy. It chugs harder than a train does on a normal UK weekday, the graphics are pretty ugly at times, and the game lacks direction. All of these are problems to contend with.
Despite these issues, I find Kenshi to be one of the most enjoyable and engrossing games I’ve played in years. Many of the game’s problems can be improved and fixed with the vibrant modding community, even if the modding tools themselves are quite limited. Kenshi has been so successful that Lofi Games are hard at work making a sequel. The sky’s the limit for these guys, and I’ll always be around to recommend Kenshi to anyone who wants a unique, fresh experience to try out.
Kenshi is available on Steam and GOG for around 25$/£22.99/23 Euros, but it frequently goes on sale.
Score: 4 Stars.