After 12 years in development, Bristol-based developer Lo-Fi Games recently released the final version of Kenshi, an expansive RPG where the player has absolute choice.
The game promises a vast expansive world where the player can craft their own story. No pre-determined narrative, just the tools to explore, trade, battle and build your own way forward.
One of Steam Greenlight’s first successes, Kenshi has left four years of Early Access to rave reviews. Steam loves the game, with users rating it overwhelmingly positive. The buzz around it is intense, with seemingly everyone claiming it to be the best game they’ve ever played.
I’d like to be able to count myself among these positive reviewers, I’d like to, but my experience of Kenshi was a little different to the Steam reviewers. After an hour or so of wrestling with the camera and the controls, getting baffled by confusing UI and ending up murdered by an assailant I barely saw coming, I realised that perhaps this wasn’t the all-encompassing masterpiece the Internet would have you believe.
And this is a real shame, because there’s a lot about Kenshi that has promise. The concept of a free-roaming RPG where you can choose your own path is always intriguing. Its world is vast and impressive for a small indie project. Mechanics are deep and I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of what the system will allow. There’s a lack of polish, but for a game of this scale on the budget it had, it’s easy to overlook.
The problem is, the game does a poor job of communicating its intricate systems to the player. You start the game by being dumped directly into a vast world, usually around a border town of abandoned buildings. From here, you’re left to your own devices, and this is where the problems start.
Whilst a massive world to explore is appealing, being dropped in it with no foundational knowledge of how anything works is akin to starting a job as a software engineer without any knowledge of coding. You’ll probably have just as much success too.
This isn’t the fault of one single aspect. Tips are given in a sidebar that updates in reaction to things you do but are rarely helpful. One help message was little more than marketing blurb, as the answer to “what do I do?” led to a repeat of the game’s selling points. You’re largely left to your own devices, but you don’t actually know what you’re capable of at this point.
This would be fine – experimentation is good, after all – but all attempts at trying to forge a path in this world seemed to lead to barriers. I wanted to get tooled up and head out to explore the world, but everything was too expensive. A help message informed me about setting up a base, but the buildings were even more expensive.
I considered crafting some useful items out of materials I swiped from a storeroom, but the game informed me that I’d need to build a research bench at my non-existent base, so I could research crafting. I tried to see if friendly NPCs were offering up jobs, so I could improve my financial situation, but everyone in the tavern wanted money for their services. I felt hamstrung by my finances at every turn, and I don’t need a video game to experience that when I have that in real life, thanks.
This was hampered by some odd design choices that didn’t help the confusion. NPCs are everywhere, but only a handful can be interacted with. Nothing distinguishes the useful ones from the guys who exist as moving decoration. There were objects in the world that showed a cog icon when I hovered the mouse over them but clicking them did nothing. I assume this was due to needing to unlock some skills for later, but the game gave no intuitive feedback on this.
Attempting to leave the initial compound had two potential outcomes. The first time I walked out into the vast world…and kept walking. And walking. And walking. I don’t know how far I went, but I saw nothing of note along the way, except an interesting-looking band of NPCs, who I couldn’t interact with. The second attempt to leave the city resulted in enemies appearing from nowhere with no warning. They then proceeded to slice me to ribbons in seconds while I floundered to defend myself.
It’s a game full of deep and complex systems, but this means little when these systems seem to be arbitrarily obfuscated. There are no directed tutorials, no simple introductory quests, and few rewards for exploration and experimentation. Contrast this to a game like Minecraft, where you’re similarly dumped into a world and left to your own devices, but there you can punch a tree and get wood and it immediately makes sense. Kenshi, meanwhile, is too dense for its own good.
The complexities are intriguing and maddening in equal measure. There’s a definite sense of something here, and a game doesn’t gain the reception it has from the Steam community without doing something right. But, it throws so much at you at once, giving the impression of a game where everything is possible eventually, but right now, good luck having any fun.
I don’t want to dislike Kenshi, however. I returned to it a few times, desperate to like it, because all the right elements are in place. But each time I quit out of frustration because I simply couldn’t find a satisfying way forward.
Room for Improvement
If Chris Hunt and his team want to address this, I would suggest a few optional guiding tutorials, or a “beginner’s mode” where you run a pre-made quest in the world that introduces the mechanics gradually before letting the player loose. There are certainly the foundations for this being possible within the game, as different game setups allow certain paths to be open for you immediately, but I found these ultimately still confusing and far too open-ended for a first timer still learning the ropes. I’m certainly not asking for an excess amount of hand-holding, just for exploration to feel more rewarding than it currently does.
Kenshi is a game where you can do everything and nothing at once. It has huge potential, and there’s definitely a hardcore audience that will be all over the punishing beginnings. But at present it’s far too dense for a wider audience to get to grips with.
A copy for this game was provided by PR for review