Scan in Progress: Kenshi

Game development is a strange business- so much of a game’s quality comes together in the final stretch. All games start out with big ambitions and plenty of ideas, and build a basic foundation that functions well enough. As the creation process goes on, the quality diverges, and the true nature of the game gradually begins to shine through. The project that once looked like a nondescript mess either starts to come together into something truly special… or it doesn’t. This is part of the reason Steam Early Access games can be so hard to assess- depending on how complete it is, and how much its particular style relies on that last coat of polish, it can be very hard to tell how a game will turn out. I looked at Sir, You Are Being Hunted and felt underwhelmed by it, but in updates since it has gotten significantly more interesting. I stand by my assessment- I don’t think I was wrong. It just needed the extra time to become something special, as many games do.

This makes it all the more impressive when a game that has so far left to go already shows signs of winning character and design. When I first heard about the open world squad based RPG Kenshi, the pitch alone was amazing to me. What if you weren’t a hero? What if you weren’t saving the world? What if you were just a guy, in a land where making a living is dangerous, you learn more from losing than winning, and sometimes running really is the better option? When I got my hands on the game, it was a little too rough- the game didn’t have any quests, any directions, or any sound. I decided to give it a little time. Now, a month later, I have come back to it, and I like what I see.

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Kenshi sees you dropped into a vast desert world with scattered towns, the expanses inbetween filled with overeager bandits. Character creation is both surprisingly deep, and rather limited- a vast array of sliders that rivals Mass Effect is at your disposal, but for all my tweaking I ended up with the same dirty-faced muscle man. It doesn’t matter too much- the game plays from an overhead perspective, and you can zoom out to the point that your character is just a tiny dot, so you don’t spend much time looking at your face. You can also get other characters in your party, so the looks of your individual matter even less.

A variety of backgrounds determine your starting gear and stats, reminiscent of classic PC rpgs like Arcanum, and then you’re dropped into the open world to do what you will. The game is still noticeably incomplete- there are no quests, and only very rudimentary help as to how to play the game- but there is enough there to poke and explore that you soon find things to do. There are shopkeepers, with prices for goods varying by town so that a traveling merchant can make a tidy profit. There are bandits to fight, bodies to loot, and you can build your own fortress with materials purchased in town. You can forge your own armor, or weapons, and you can research new things to build.

Or, like my first character, you can bleed to death. An ambitious journey into the desert with my blade in hand brought me in conflict with a group of eight bandits, who beat the shit outta me and left me for dead (I had no money to steal). I recovered enough to limp toward town, but before I got there, another group of three bandits found me, and I was too injured to make a decent run for it. They extinguished the flame of my life, and with it my unrealistic expectations. I wasn’t special in this world. I was just another guy. And if I wanted power, I would have to earn it.

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So with my next character, I played smarter. I got a super nice sword, I practiced with it against some training dummies until I was confident with the blade, and then I set out into the wilds. Once again, bandits met me on the fields… but this time, I wasn’t cocky. I ran, and they chased me right into a group of guards, at which point I turned on heel and joined the guards against the brigands. I was still relatively inexperienced, and didn’t exactly pull any incredible heroics, but I held my own, and thanks to the far more competent guards, I had a set of bandit bodies to loot and sell. After a few cycles of this, I was strong enough to travel the desert with confidence, knowing that if I met bandits, I could survive long enough to get away.

At the moment, there’s not too much more to do- the game version says 0.50.3, and I’d say that’s a reasonable assessment of how far along it is. The core systems are all there, and now they just need to fill the world with content. A lot of content. I don’t think I’d recommend playing this now, as there isn’t an overwhelming amount of stuff to do… but if you want to see a great game in the making, or just want to get your foot in the door before the price goes up, pick up Kenshi. I am pretty damn sure that when it’s done, it will be something really special.