Sometimes, we discover the perfect games in the strangest ways.
For example: much of my childhood I was lucky enough to stumble into what I feel were some of the best games of the Gamecube era purely by chance. The cover art of Lost Kingdoms enchanted me, and since it was only twenty bucks (thanks, Gamestop) I decided to take a chance on it: not only did I discover that From Software was great at an early age (although they do have a thing for colorless killer fog), I was able to play a deeply satisfying card-based RPG that both my brother and I were addicted to, for a time. By that same token, I’d never even heard of Gladius, the gladiator-based RPG created by the now-vanished Lucasarts, yet when I happened to see on the cover that Nintendo Power had given it a 8, I decided to see what the fuss was about. And again: I was super happy with the purchase. I still firmly believe that in this era of motion control, we deserve a proper Gladius sequel.
But the new champion for “weirdest way to discover a game” has to go to the most recent addition to my Steam library, and the game I’ve been using to kill time until Three Houses is finally released: Kenshi. I only stumbled onto it when I saw a short gif from the game had been used as a reaction image to a random picture dump. The video didn’t say what game it was from, but follow-up comments did, and with my curiosity perked I decided to check it out.
And I’ve been in love with it ever sense.
If you haven’t heard of it, I’d find that both unfortunate but unsurprising: despite being overwhelmingly popular on Steam, and having been available for purchase since late last year, it seems the algorithms are very bad at promoting this particular gem. But in brief: Kenshi is basically a single-player MMO with all the restrictions and red tape lifted.
Confused? Let’s go with the not-brief version, then. Kenshi is an open-world sandbox in the most true sense: there’s not ‘plot’, there’s no ‘story’ (although there are a few optional quests you can indulge in), there’s just a big, open, miserable world with warring factions, brutal bandits, monsters, ruins, rebels, and other standard RPG fare. You – or your squad, depending on the opening you pick – are dropped in the middle of this world, and that’s pretty much it. You’re not given any quests, any direction, anything except what you start with. From there, you just have to figure your own crap out.
And it’ll be hard, too. The world has a lot of moving pieces that don’t care about you in the slightest, and so you’ll spend a lot of your time at the start just trying to avoid getting crushed. With the default background, you start with a club, some clothes, and literally no skills or talents whatsoever. Since the only real way to get better at things is to do them, if you want to be able to defend yourself you’re either going to have to stumble into some bleeding fool and smack him around when he’s weak and vulnerable, find some way to sneak into a training camp and use their training dummies without getting caught, or willingly get the crap beaten out of you and hope you don’t die when you get swarmed by nine starved bandits.
But once you figure out how you’re going to not die and you get into a relatively stable position, the world really opens up to you. You can buy some pack animals and trade goods and go from town to town to earn your fortune. Alternatively, you can live the bandit life and rob others. Being a sneaky thief and stealing your way to survival is probably the easiest way to get ahead in life, but you’ll need to be careful when and where you sell your stolen goods. If you have the capital, you can buy a building in a town and open up your own store. With the help of mods, you could even become a slaver. But the game largely seems optimized (in its non-obtrusive way) to helping you start your very own settlement. There are lots of buildings you can throw up (as long as you’re far enough away from other settlements), and between the forges, the mines, the farms, the windmills, and more, it’s possible to forge your own functional society if you have the time and the patience for it. And you don’t get ambushed by skull dogs or religious zealots while you’re building. Which will definitely happen.
Doing this alone would be bordering on impossible, but almost every settlement has an inn where you can find more down-on-their-luck nobodies who’ll join your squad for a little coin. Many of these people are literal nobodies with no skills or talents, whom you customize just like your starting character the instant they’re hired. Some people, however, have actual skills, names, and stories. They cost a good deal extra coin, and can’t be customized, but at least they’re not as absolutely worthless as the sacks of skin and meat you typically start with. Once you have people, you can control them as easily as you command your starting unit, but you can also give them “jobs”, tasks they’ll do automatically without your oversight. That’s especially important when you have your own outpost, because as you get more and more people, manually controlling them and the machines they use will become a huge chore.
So why do I call it like an MMO? Well, that’s the actual gameplay part. Combat in the game is interesting, but only visually: mechanically all you do is click on your enemy and hope that you kill them before they kill you, and that can largely only be assured by having numbers bigger than their numbers. Sometimes someone with less numbers than you can get a stray hit in, which may cause bleeding or force you to patch a wound, but generally you can count on your numbers – either stats or raw number of bodies you throw at the problem – to win you the day. Likewise, the jobs are a lot like MMO jobs, in that you just do them when you have the equipment and tools and materials, you produce a thing, you sell it, and you get better at the job. There’s no denying that this game is absolutely packed with grinding, and since the controls basically amount to clicking and moving the camera, you could almost call this a super-detailed open world Runescape game.
Grinding isn’t the game’s only problem by a longshot. While it revels in the fact it doesn’t give a crap about you, I think it could stand to be a little more generous with new characters. Even a few free points to distribute to your skills would be a great help, because you start with literally nothing and even the malnourished scavengers that wander the desert have a few points in attack and defense. I had to literally lure a mob of them to some town guards and mop up the surviving bandits to get my first few points in combat-related skill, which is a fun story but I’m having a hard time thinking of any alternate way you could have done it: literally everything in this world is stronger than you.
Oh, yes,and there are bugs. Many, many, many bugs.
Likewise, this game tends to lean towards the stronger end of things as far as NPC’s and Monsters are concerned. The average town guard for the Holy Flame has about 60 in attack and defense stats, which is well above average (since stats max out at 100), and they’re pretty on-par with the other non-bandit foes you might find yourself facing. If you wanted to take them down, you’d either need a huge mob (which is possible via mods, which can increase your total unit size to about 256) or… something else. I literally can’t think of a way to really get your skills to that level in any sane, non-cheating way.
But what this game does really well, and the reason I’m so happy spending time with it while I wait for Fire Emblem, is that it creates that perfect canvas for imagination that I always look for in my games. And frankly, I’m a little mad that it was Imgur that showed me that it exists: this is exactly the kind of open-world RPG thing I always look for when I revisit Skyrim and find myself bored and disappointed with the same skills, spells, dungeons, and enemies. I literally looked for ages for a game just like this, and Steam wouldn’t spit it out. Something must be wrong with their algorithms, man.
Anyway. The game is about 30 bucks on Steam, if you’re interested. It also has a pretty robust collection of mods so far, so if you’re interested, I recommend you give it a look.