Writing this review was a struggle. On the one hand, I have a longstanding love-hate relationship with “Kenshi”; on the other hand, “Kenshi” is a game that cannot be properly summarized with mere words, but I will try my best.
The game was made by people who asked, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if you were a katana-wielding robot on a post-apocalyptic planet and you could build yourself a castle and conquer the world?” “Kenshi” is many things — it is a real-time strategy fortress builder; it is a squad-based adventure game; it is a post-post-apocalyptic role-playing game, and yet it is somehow more than the sum of these parts. If any game is a prime example of video games as an art form, it is “Kenshi.” The breathtaking environment, immersive worldbuilding and hundreds of hours of content without even having quests, a story or a discernible endgame is a massive feat.
I can’t write about the story because there is no story. “Kenshi” gives you no quests and no objectives, and the few tutorials you get are all about gameplay mechanics. The closest thing that “Kenshi” has to quests are optional bounties that you can capture and turn in for a reward. That’s really it. For the vast majority of the game, it is entirely up to you, the player, to decide what to do and how to do it.
And that’s a lot of things. You can create a small, thriving town to grow food and produce goods to sell in the market. You can play as an assassin or thief who makes their living by sneaking around, stealing and fencing goods. You can play as a merchant who travels city-to-city buying and selling goods. You can play as a small band of warriors who train to be the best warriors in the entire world. You can play as a drug runner, a scavenger, a hunter — if you can think it, you can play it in “Kenshi.”
A complex-yet-intuitive faction system only adds to the amount of ways you can play. You can join the Shek Kingdom, a race of warrior-folk who just go around fighting each other. Another option, the Holy Nation, is a group of racist, misogynistic cultists who don’t ever seem to shut up or stop trying to evangelize you — you know … incels. The United Cities are a collection of slave mongering samurai who are ruled by a few wealthy elite. These three kingdoms are locked in a state of war, allowing you to ally yourself to or make enemies with any of them.
These factions are all opposed by other minor factions that you can also ally yourself with. The Shek Kingdom contains a smaller group of Shek who believe that constant war will inevitably be self destructive. The Holy Nation is juxtaposed by a cohort of radical feminist ninja warriors who oppose the Holy Nation’s racist, sexist theocracy. Lastly, the United Cities are opposed by militant, anti-slavery abolitionists who hate the wealthy slaveholders that run the United Cities.
“Kenshi” can often feel like a clash of genres — on one hand, society is mostly based around sword-and-crossbow combat and medieval social structures; on the other hand, robots, space lasers and ancient factories are abundant throughout the world. This makes “Kenshi” feel like a blend of high fantasy and post-apocalypse. That isn’t to say this stylistic combination falls flat — rather, “Kenshi” provides a unique and memorable experience almost entirely through the execution of its stylistic choices alone.
“Kenshi” stands as the perfect example of immersive, implicit world-building. It doesn’t tell you what apocalyptic events turned the world into what it is today; in fact, “Kenshi” doesn’t even tell you what world you’re on.
Instead of being pestered with dialogue and unskippable scenes force-feeding you the history of “Kenshi”, the player has to piece together the lore bit-by-bit through minor dialogue exchanges and the occasional book or two. This, combined with the spectacular environmental storytelling, create an intriguing way to deliver the story to the player which leaves itself open to speculation.
Environmental storytelling is where “Kenshi” shines brightest. Ancient ruins and monuments dot the landscape, hinting at past events without ever explicitly telling you why those ruins are there or what those monuments once stood for. Vast machinery and scrap metal hints at a once-powerful civilization that ruled over the world. Bands of roving samurai, ninjas and starving bandits show how society has progressed (or regressed) since the fall of the prior civilizations.
The world of “Kenshi” is simultaneously quite familiar and entirely alien. Some environments feel like they’re ripped straight out of the real world; the map is dotted with fertile river basins where societies have always flourished, deserts reminiscent of the American Southwest and thick jungles like those of the Amazon. Other more fantastical environments feel more unique to the world of “Kenshi”. In one jungle, constant acid rain falls on the player while they fight off dangerous wildlife and bug-like humanoid creatures. Another part of the map is covered in vast, ancient machinery and barren, ashen wastes. One of the most memorable sections of the map feels like any other ordinary desert until lasers start shooting out of the sky.
“Kenshi” can feel like a slog, sometimes being more frustrating than rewarding to play. But I have also played “Kenshi” for hours without noticing the passage of time. It has enthralled me for countless hours while still drawing me in for more every time I boot it up.
I refuse to give “Kenshi” a score — not because it doesn’t deserve one, but because even a 10/10 wouldn’t do it justice. Instead, I can only recommend that you buy on Steam or your PC game store of choice — at many of which it is often on sale.
Drake White-Bergey is the photo editor of the Daily Cardinal. You can follow him on Instagram at @drakewb437 and on Twitter at @dwhite437.