A decade of Blood, Sand, and Struggle: Celebrating 10 Years of an Indie Gem, Kenshi
By: Gavin Muhlfelder
Edited by: Hayden Yu Andersen
Dusk falls upon the desert in the 2013 strategy game Kenshi (Photo/Lo-Fi Games)
It took Chris Hunt and his small indie team 12 years to create and publish “Kenshi”, and 10 years later I’m watching my character get the life beat out of him all because I didn’t appease a massive religious faction within the game. If reading that paints a vividly bleak picture in your head, then you get the gist of the game, bleak. “Kenshi” is a single-player open world, real time strategy RPG game that will push you to your limits.
Players are transported to a scorched and barren planet, where the only oases are strange outposts and decrepit, rustic cities. Anything and everything is out to get you. Giant beaked creatures reminiscent of a dinosaur that will stalk your character and party for miles? Check. Swamp ninjas will cut you down in seconds just to steal your already limited food and even sometimes permanently take a limb from your character . Check! The “Bugmaster”, a wanted criminal who commands an army of creepy spiders. Check, check, and check.
“Kenshi” has it all boxed and wrapped up in unforgiving brutal wrapping paper more akin to sandpaper. Each aspect of the gameplay is torture but that’s what keeps its fanbase coming back. The game starts with allowing you to choose from 13 different backgrounds, many with differing difficulties. The extreme ranging from being chased by a band of cannibals, to starting in the heart of the desert with nothing and I mean nothing, no clothes, no money, no weapons, and missing an arm. For my first play through I choose the most balanced start. So, I started my journey into Kenshi as a lone wanderer.
After spending a ridiculous amount of time in the very in-depth character customization process. Which allows you to choose from 7 playable races, many different facial presets and options, and even the ability to alter your character's posture. I finally spawned into the world for the first of many times. Starting off in a small little settlement known as the “Hub”. Frequented by vagrants, slavers, mercenaries, and now the poor soul known as my character. My first decision was to check out the settlement's bar and restaurant, which was full of life, much to my surprise. Characters occupied every table as guards watched tentatively in the shadowy corners. Armed with katanas and crossbows.
After taking in the atmosphere, I tried my luck in stealing food. Which, in hindsight, was one of the worst choices I could’ve made. Maybe it’s because of my bias as in other RPGs, the worst punishment for stealing would be a slap on the wrist and a possible fine. Not in “Kenshi”. I alerted everyone to my now botched crime and proceeded to have the entire bar beat up my character until he was put into a comatose state. Here’s the thing in “Kenshi” that's not inherently bad. Your character will always start off as weak, both physically and mentally. With every loss of a battle your character will receive xp, which in turn will allow them to take more punches to dish out more deadly strikes, or proficiency with blades, or projectiles, even in martial arts. Sadly, in this situation, my character was losing blood rapidly.
My first playthrough ended staring at my computer screen watching my in-game self fade into nothing. Though losses in combat can be beneficial, they’re best to be avoided, especially early on as even the simplest of brawls can be a death sentence and with no other characters in my party it was all over. Pretty demoralizing. But I wasn’t done. After many failed playthroughs, promising starts only to end in antagonizing often bloody endings.
Mercenaries enjoying some downtime (Photo/Lo-Fi Games)
I was nearing all I could endure from this game. But something about building an empire in a world which would and will go on without you kept me so invested. Kenshi’s world building and dynamics are something to marvel at. From the “Mad Max”, post apocalyptic influence to its stylistic choice to feature mainly weapons from feudal japan.
The eerie ambient music accompanies you on your journey through this merciless world. The sprawling map includes vastly different biomes, cities, cultures, species, relics, ruins, and terrifying discoveries, all somehow feeling similar and interconnected by a vast,desolate, and remote desert. 10 years post-release there truly hasn’t been a map to its scale that can capture Kenshi’s uncanny and inconsistent world. But what truly brings the world to life is the empires and factions that reside in it. Kenshi features a dynamic and reactive political structure. A reminder to anyone playing that the world will move on with or without you.
Wars between factions can happen almost anytime. Relations can improve or worsen between them, and power vacuums are often created. Everything in Kenshi dies. That also includes major faction leaders, which also include entire factions . My most memorable moments from Kenshi were attacking an already weakened force recovering from a battle to secure the right to all the loot from the fallen. Kenshi also gives you the freedom to do whatever you want. Anything from ruling your own empire and eradicating all other ones, to just being an adventurer, or mercenary, a farmer, or a trader that runs the richest caravan in all of the lands. You could make yourself and your friends and play house like it’s the “Sims”, just in a world where anything can kill you.
You can become a business owner selling weapons, armor, food, clothes, and sometimes more dubious items. What's important is that you decide how your story plays out. You decide what you want out of Kenshi, but you never can fully choose how it ends. Death is inevitable if that's going down in a blaze of glory, trading blows with massive armies dying alongside other characters you’ve invested so much time into making.
Or in the desert exploring something you probably shouldn’t have. Or the absolute worst, setting up a base in land controlled by The Holy Empire, one of Kenshi’s ultra-powerful nations. And forgetting to pray with their patrol they send to your base every in-game sunday and then them preceding to demolish you and your base as retribution. Death is a huge part of the gameplay loops as you learn more about what to do and what not to do for your next playthrough, and then your next and then your next. I’m currently on my ninth playthrough.
I made me and a few of my friends embark on a quest to rule the entire planet and all the trade routes available. Despite its punishing sometimes down right evil nature. It’s hard not to return to more. The game’s unrelenting challenge, combined with its intricate and vast world, keeps players just like me engaged and eager to conquer its harsh landscapes.
It’s a game that will push you, and for those up for the challenge “Kenshi” provides in my opinion one of the best gaming experiences you will ever find. You can find “Kenshi” on Steam, GOG, Humble Bundle, as well as the official website Lo-Fi Games. Kenshi was developed by Lo-Fi games who are working on the prequel to “Kenshi”. Make sure to check them out on their social media to see new concept art from their upcoming release.