Atomp (P)reviews: Kenshi

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By Tom Hooper aka Atomp

Kenshi has been floating around for some time and recently it has made it into Steam’s new Early Access scheme. I’ve been tempted by it for some time now with the promises of a massive open world with squad building and many opportunities. It initially sounded l much like the Mount and Blade series which I love and have lost many many hours to over the years. Kenshi is essentially an RTS-RPG hybrid set in a desert region with some Western, some Japanese and a few steam-punky cultural influences in-game. The point is to provide the player with a large sandbox in which to play how they please, be it merchant, mercenary, etc. Think of it as Elite, but in a desert not space, with swords not lasers and… OK not the best comparison but it does capture the essence of an Elite-like space game as the overall free-form gameplay is reminiscent of that genre and the loneliness and vastness of the uncaring desert isn’t a far cry from the loneliness and vastness of cold hard space.

To call Kenshi a sandbox is something of an understatement and that becomes glaringly obvious when you start out, like all of the truly free-roam sandbox greats it has a learning curve of some severity and very limited guidance, which could be down to its alpha-state or it could be intentional. This initial lost feeling in a new and open world is something common in this genre and getting into the game as is requires some persistence, however eventually the scale of the world becomes quite apparent and marginally more accessible. This scale feels somewhat padded, there are settlements but these are sparse and widely spaced and a desert/mountainous desert environment stretches for some distance between these settlements. the desert  In a game without horses this means running, thankfully with time acceleration. It could well be that the world will develop and grow to become more populous as time progresses and the player character expands their own power and influence. It could well be that the world will develop more as the development cycle progresses, it’s difficult to say how much would be necessary in a game that takes such pride in being a blank canvas. The developer has gone on record stating that world will be built up to more heavily populated state as game development progresses.

The world as it is currently in alpha already has many of the underlying systems that will make the world dynamic and alive, factions roam and fight and the trade system is detailed and well managed. The presence of these systems gives the impression that the scope of the game in this aspect is huge and that there is already significant progress towards making that idea a reality. It is this potential that really makes the game even if the world is a tad sparse in early alpha state. As development progresses the complexity and polish of the game world and the core systems and mechanics will improve.

The gameplay and character control is built around a free floating camera and RTS style select and order mechanics. Camera control is a little clunky and I found that I had to fiddle a bit to get it comfortable and even then it wasn’t an entirely smooth experience. The camera could really do with some form of ‘follow’ mode where it follows the currently selected unit or a control method similar as the first experiences with it are not the greatest. The unit controls seem tight and very importantly for such an RTS style control method I have yet to find any example of bad pathfinding. The drag to select, click to move RTS style is fairly simple to use and moving your guys around on the sand a piece of cake. Navigation is done using the overlay map which provides a small blue ‘x’ to show player location on an overall display of the world. This is pretty vital as the desert is huge and not particularly varied, in fact the navigation could use a little polish: A compass would help immensely as direction would no longer rely on judging movement on the map. More interaction with the map would also be nice, the ability to zoom and pan would be of great help. Both the compass and the map interaction could then be supplemented with some form of waypoint system which would allow the player more flexibility and precision in how they plan their route to a certain location or importantly around a certain obstacle.

The aesthetic of the game is interesting as in many places it is very pretty, especially for an in development project. The graphics options are already fairly impressive and with some settings tweaking the engine looks great, only really suffering from a few rough edges here and there and a lack of variety in content. The development process of the game seems to be focussed on reinforcing key core mechanics and functions with the aim of adding polish later which perfectly explains the aesthetic and graphical fidelity as it is; functionally impressive with rough edges. The game currently lacks sound and whilst the developer has found someone for sound design the fundamental sound engine remains non-existent so as of yet there is no sound and no music. The lack of sound and music was a surprisingly big deal when I first started playing about a bit. I’m no stranger to the silent game, Cataclysm DDA for example, however the lack of sound and music in Kenshi was profound because of how much I wanted it to be there. As I said, this is an issue that is going to be fixed and so far the demo video from the sound designer was impressive and once the changes are implemented the game will feel like a much more complete experience.

In short Kenshi shows a huge amount of potential. The game as it stands is very much a work in progress and whilst it remains playable it feels incomplete which is something that some testing releases manage to get away with, in that sense Kenshi as it stands is very much a testing and debug release. Before you decide to try the game keep in mind that it will feel clunky and unpolished. The fact remains that the developer has taken every opportunity to be completely open and honest as to the current state of the game and is using the Early Access scheme and pre-release purchases to fund continued development. Early Access purchase will currently cost $13.00 (approx £8.54) from the developer website or a Steam Sale price of $11.20 (approx £7.36) (normal price on Steam is $16.73 (approx £10.99)). You can download the demo from the developer website and try it out free of charge in order to get an idea of what game is like and then if you see the potential I’d recommend that Steam Sale price (valid until 22/07/13). Personally this is a game I may leave on the back burner for awhile as development progresses further, however certainly expect to see Kenshi pop-up again in a preview update peice in the future.

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