OPINION | GAME ON: In the wastelands of ‘Kenshi’ nobody cares if you live or die

"Kenshi" is a squad-based RPG set in a vast, dystopian Sword Punk style open world unrestricted to a linear story: enjoy the freedom to be thief, merchant, warlord … or food for the cannibals. (Courtesy of Lo-Fi Games Ltd.)
"Kenshi" is a squad-based RPG set in a vast, dystopian Sword Punk style open world unrestricted to a linear story: enjoy the freedom to be thief, merchant, warlord … or food for the cannibals. (Courtesy of Lo-Fi Games Ltd.)


Platform: PC

Cost: $29.99

Rating: Mature for violence, language, adult themes

Score: 8 out of 10

In the unrelenting world of "Kenshi," filled with harsh landscapes, dangerous beasts, brutal slavers, hungry bandits and hungrier cannibals, you are not special.

You are a nobody, quite possibly the weakest person on the whole planet, and must somehow eke out an existence in a world filled with countless dangers.

What is "Kenshi"? It's whatever you want it to be. Set in a "sword punk" post-post-apocalyptic world, "Kenshi" is a role-playing game, a real-time strategy game, a squad-based combat game, a city-building simulator and a survival game. There is no main storyline. You're not a chosen one. You are just dropped into the world and must survive however you can.

Would you like to live as a simple farmer, growing crops and taking them to market? You can do that. Would you like to become an all-powerful warlord, selling your enemies into slavery and bringing the wastelands under your thumb? You can do that. Fancy freeing yourself from the constraints of your biological flesh and acquiring powerful robotic limbs? You can do that, too.

At first glance, "Kenshi" does not look like the kind of game someone would play in 2022. The graphics are severely outdated, as this is a game that has been under development for over a decade by Lo-Fi Games (consisting mostly of a single person). Graphically, it's significantly worse than 2010's "Fallout: New Vegas."

However, as a proud member of Club Graphics Don't Matter, I say if you're willing to look a little deeper, there's some amazing depth and replayability here. It's definitely a time-sink, as the only way to get good at something is to work hard at it.

The game does not expect you to be awesome from the start, and in fact it expects you will lose often. Characters in "Kenshi" have four statistics: Strength, Perception, Dexterity and Toughness, and your character(s) have some training to do.

The best way to train toughness? Get beat up, a lot. Every time you take a hit, and especially when you get knocked unconscious, that Toughness stat will increase, making you a little harder to bring down the next time. Want more strength? Get a job hauling heavy rocks, or carry around bodies. Train those legs!

There are also 29 skills to level up, with skills for each weapon type, for general attack and defense, and skills for farming, laboring, researching and engineering, among others.

In the classic "Kenshi" start, you are a lone wanderer, but you don't have to stay that way. Others will join your cause, either because you share ideals or for money. And having some allies will help, because packs of roving bandits are commonplace.

"Kenshi" does a great job of making the world seem very real. There's a ton of lore and lots to learn about, but it isn't handed to you. That knowledge is acquired through dialogue, finding books and exploration. And there's no hand-holding.

In my first play-through, I struggled at first (like almost all do, I am sure). How does one earn money? How do I keep my guy fed? The basic way people find is to start mining copper or iron from nodes scattered around the world. I spent days and days doing only that, having to run away constantly from any threat that came by (such as wild animals or bandits). Eventually, I had enough to buy some companions, and now we mined together, and then eventually I sought to make a base in the wilderness. I chose a place between two towns that had some ore nodes, built a shack and walled it in, in the hopes that my people could now mine safely.

I was wrong. A new settlement was like a beacon on a dark night.

Soon I had visitors coming by on a regular basis — some benign, like traders, but every few days bandits would swing by, making demands. Rather than pay bandits their ransom fees, I instead hired mercenaries from a nearby town to guard my base, and quickly found that becoming a target for bandits was actually pretty profitable, as I could loot and sell their gear.

Slowly my settlement grew as I hired more allies. I built training dummies so they could practice their combat skills, mounted crossbows on the walls, and worked to solidify my place in a harsh world.

That is just the tip of the "Kenshi" iceberg, however. There are many "starts" to "Kenshi." You could, for example, start as a metal skeleton from a robotic civilization. Or any of the various races in the world. One start lets you create a squad of six, complete with funds and building materials. Another puts you in the worst possible situation: naked, hungry, missing an arm and in slaver territory.

There's a great modding community with "Kenshi," too, with some worth checking out even as a total beginner to the game. There is a "Kenshi 2" in the works, but it's still early in its development and may be years before it's out. But that's fine, because I'll be busy with this unique gem for quite a while.

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