Kenshi is a brutal, post-apocalyptic experience that’s perfect for the pandemic era

The pandemic really has me playing a lot of older games. I already spent a heavy amount of time into Rimworld earlier this year, and that was a fun romp into a hilariously random adventure with painfully inept colonists on a hostile planet. Rimworld’s actually ignited a desire in me to find more titles that don’t fit any mainstream niches, and that’s how I ended up playing Kenshi.

I’ve had a penchant for playing indie titles this year, and I’m continuing the trend with this latest romp. The game itself isn’t new by any means, as it went into early access in 2013 and was officially released on December 6, 2018. It’s not particularly pretty either, and Lo-Fi Games kept true to their company name by releasing a game that wasn’t the prettiest thing to look at.

As unimpressive as the graphics may be, though, the gameplay filled a need that I didn’t even know I had.

The core concept of the game is that you take control of a single character or a squad that has to fend for itself on the moon of Kenshi, which features a single large landmass. It’s got an assortment of cities owned by major factions, along with smaller groups that you can either become friendly with or pick a fight with. It’s a world where the inhabitants live independently of you and could care less about what you’re doing unless it happens to be attacking them or becoming allies with their sworn enemy.

That’s part of the magic of the game for me. One of the things I read about Kenshi that sold me on it was on the developer’s website, which said:

“Set in an unrelenting world of bloodthirsty cannibals, starving bandits, brutal slavers and wild beasts, survival alone is a grueling struggle… You are not the chosen one. You’re not great and powerful. You don’t have more ‘hitpoints’ than everyone else. You are not the center of the universe, and you are not special. Unless you work for it.”

After playing so many games where the fate of the world rested on my shoulders, I wanted to play a game that was ready to punish me for every little mistake, and where the path to power wasn’t so easy. It’s safe to say that I got what I was looking for, and man a lot of the journey has been ROUGH.

This video perfectly captures the Kenshi experience.

Instead of being the Dovahkiin, Vault Dweller, Doomguy, or some nameless hero that rather quickly becomes one of the most powerful beings in the known world, I started off as a broke human male named Jittah in a decrepit little town called The Hub with absolutely no idea about what the hell I had to do.

There was, of course, an obligatory tutorial period where I found myself learning how to pan the camera and all that nonsense. When it came down to actually figure out where to go, what to do, or how to earn money, though, there was very little instruction. So, I simply set out with my crappy little weapon to go and find my misfortune.

It honestly didn’t take long. First, I saw a goat and thought that it would probably be a good idea to kill it to see what materials and food I could scrounge up from its body. Big mistake. That goat beat the shit out of me and left me unconscious. 

After waking up from that embarrassing experience, and having to pay to use a bed to heal from my injuries, I found a little area to mine iron ore in, which sold for what seemed like a lot of money at the time. After one or two successful runs back to town, I got a little complacent and didn’t pay attention to the screen while I was mining. I fortunately randomly looked at the screen to realize that I was being attacked by a group of bandits, and managed to drop all of my ore and run to town where the guards killed them while I cowered in a corner.

Like most cowards, I also saw opportunity after the fight, and managed to make a little bit of money (and get minor gear upgrades) by looting my assailants’ carcasses. That’s when it really clicked for me, because for the first time in a long time, I was really playing a nobody who was also a loser in a video game. It was much tougher than Valheim, which I loved, and it also had a lot of thematic similarities to Rimworld, especially with how unkind the world can be. 

Unlike Valheim and Rimworld, though, where the stories were still very much player-centric, life in Kenshi just goes on with or without you. You’re just welcome to find your fortune or doom in it as well. That fulfils a sense of real adventure and discovery that I rarely find in games, and even a few dozen hours in I still feel like I don’t know most of what’s going on.

I’ve definitely made some headway, and at least now have a base to call home. That seems to be a two-edged sword, though. Now I’ve got some religious zealots coming by every week to make me pray with them, otherwise they’ll attack. There’s also another kingdom that keeps demanding I pay tribute in the form of food.

I thought walls would keep me safe. They did not. Also, slavers didn’t like that I stole clothes from their dead comrades.

Alas, I’m nowhere near powerful enough to take either on, so I just have to play along… for now. They will eventually taste steel, but not from my currently undertrained, undergeared, and utterly hopeless crew of misfits.

All I know is I can’t get enough of this game, warts and all. It’s definitely up there with my favorite indie games.

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