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Kenshi Preview: Alpha Impressions & Exclusive Q&A
Considering that most games go out of their way to empower players, it’s surprising how big the emerging sub genre of sandbox survival games has gotten. From Minecraft to DayZ and more recently Rust – there’s this renewed enthusiasm for games that don’t treat you like ‘the chosen one’ and games where your survival is as much in your hands as it is the hands of other players. While Lo-Fi Games’ upcoming Kenshi doesn’t quite fall into the same category as those games, it still feels very much influenced by them. We got our hands on the current alpha version of the game and sat down with the developer to get better insight into what we played.
Lo-Fi describes Kenshi as a free-roaming squad based RPG that focuses on open-ended sandbox gameplay rather than a linear story. The final game is designed to offer players an enormous sandbox world where they can leave their mark on – whether they choose to do so as a trader, thief, rebel, mercenary or bandit – and while the game’s current state isn’t quite there yet, I was still pretty impressed by it.
The beginning starts you off simply enough with a quick character creation screen before throwing you into one of the world’s many cities. While not all the options in the character creation work at the moment – the sheer amount of them is sure to be pretty impressive once the game is finally done. The controls are simple enough, with you right clicking to attack or move with your squad (which for a good stretch of my playtime consisted of just me – lone wolf that I am). The general goal is to make something of yourself, whether that ends up being a traveling merchant who buys low and sells high or a ruthless mercenary who hired bounty hunters to fight off raids by desert bandits is entirely up to you.
The art style definitely struck me with its distinct visual flair. Impressive landscapes greeted me everywhere I looked and the buildings and settlements have this brilliant rusted-over look to them. The whole world feels like it’s barely getting by on the limited resources that living in a desert presents – I really liked this sense of place. This aesthetic even stretched onto the character designs – everything and everyone in the game feels worn down, and that’s what makes the relatively small impacts and achievements you make in the game feel significant.
Combat is mostly automated in the same way that it would be in a real time strategy game. You right click on enemy characters and your squad will start fighting. However what made the combat in Kenshi really interesting was watching the mechanics of it play out. Character models react and animate with a really impressive attention to detail. If you block an attack, the animations clearly reflect this and if your character manages to land a string of blows then you’ll see enemies reel backwards from each blow. What’s more is that damage is location specific and the animations portray this as well. On some level, this lack of control makes combat a bit of a gamble but it’s still absolutely fascinating and exciting to watch. Other characters aside from your own also act out a looting animation once they finish combat, which is also a nice touch.
Combat isn’t the only major set of mechanics; there’s a reasonably robust trading system for the more economically minded players and a whole tech tree of players for players who want to start building up their own settlement in the desert world. While I didn’t spend enough time with the game to really get into it the nitty-gritty of building my own sandy civilization, there’s clearly a lot of ambition behind this part of the game and the final results could be something to behold.
Q &A with Chris Hunt (Creator and Lead Developer)
Thanks for agreeing to do this interviewing. Could you start by giving readers a quick overview of exactly what kind of game Kenshi is?
It’s a kind of open-world survival RPG. It has a squad based, real-time strategy style of gameplay – you can zoom out for a birds-eye view approach, controlling teams from above; or you can zoom in for a third-person style look at individual characters etc. The player is really encouraged to think for themselves, explore the world themselves, without any pushy, linear elements of gameplay. You can build a base, craft tradeable items for a peaceful existence, or start a war with other factions. It’s a challenging, harsh environment though, so simply surviving whilst trying to get stronger can be difficult enough on it’s own.
Where did idea for the game came from and telling us how long it’s been in development? Where there any particular inspirations for this sort of sandbox gameplay?
I’ve been working on Kenshi for around 7 years now, juggling it with part-time employment as a security guard to get by. It wasn’t until last year when Kenshi was accepted on Steam Greenlight that I was able to hire a team of developers. I started working on Kenshi because I got irritated with so-called open-ended games and wanted to make an awesome RPG that I would want to play myself. Players get mollycoddled too much, with super strong hero charters and guided missions that force you to take certain routes and directions. I want to explore places when I feel like, do what I want when I feel like it. Kenshi has no super strong characters, you’re not special, just a puny normal person who needs to work hard to improve like everyone else.
When I played the game’s alpha, I found myself really digging the game’s visual look? Where there any particular inspirations for this?
The current look of the game has a kind of desert sword-punk style to it, most inspired by the Fallout series and Mad Max movies. I’ve always appreciated that open, lonely and harsh environment in games and movies. Saying that though, there will a lot more different terrains coming up in later updates, mostly arid, different deserts and canyons, but also swamplands and others.
Speaking of which, how has the feedback been now that the game is in Early Access on Steam?
It’s been pretty good, people seem excited about it’s potential. The city building aspect I think is most attractive to people – just being able to wander the desert, set up a base and fight off bandit or cannibal raids. The difficulty also makes it pretty addictive.
The thing that stuck with me from what I played of Kenshi was the game’s attention to detail. Just the little things like the way that characters animate in combat, or the way they nurse wounded arms – how important was it for you to get that kind of detail?
You never get enough detail to injuries in games! If my guy hurts his leg, I wanna see it have a real visual effect, I want it to affect his combat skills, his walking speed. Taking a beating will have an obvious affect on gameplay, just like it would in reality. Later on, characters will even suffer dismemberment if they take too much of beating, or be forced to crawl around. I think it makes you care more for your squad, seeing their pain and having them risk permanent crippling – I want you to fear for your squad’s wellbeing, grow an attachment to them and identify with them.
Remember in Die Hard when Bruce Willis walks on broken glass and by the end of the film he’s limping around covered in bandages? You don’t get that in games, we just have this cold, sterile perfection all the time.
While the game’s described as a single-player sandbox RPG on Steam, there isn’t really any sort of leveling system that I could find. What was the rationale behind that?
Leveling up is done through practice. Pretty much everything you do in Kenshi contributes towards improving your character’s stats – just running to the next town increases your run speed, or ‘Athletics’. Being beaten unconscious will only make you tougher. The main reasoning behind this is that it would create too much micromanagement when you have a large squad with so many skills, having to level them all up and choose skills- you’d be doing it every five minutes. This way it’s entirely automatic, without surrendering any control.
One of the things I really liked is the scope and breadth of the things that players can do to make their way in the world – they can trade, build or hunt bounties. Are there any other progression paths that you’re looking to add to the game as development continues?
Players will have darker routes they can take in the game – I’ll be introducing smuggling, assassination and thievery, and I’ll also be adding the ability to build armies to wage wars – in the bigger picture, people who put a lot of time into the game may be able to conquer empires and ultimately rule the world.
One of the big features of the game is obviously the ability to build your own settlement. How far can players take that, could you eventually build a string of cities or one enormous supercity? How far could an enthusiastic Kenshi player take things?
Personally I think it plays best with a smaller, focused team and an efficient outpost. But I think that’s just my own playstyle. There are no limits on what players can build. It would be a challenge, but yeah, a supercity is definitely possible. And I don’t want to place any limitations on certain playstyles. Players are already making some pretty interesting bases.
What’s the future looking like for game? Any big milestones on the horizon? When are you hoping to have the game ready enough for a full release?
Oliver, our 3D Designer, is working on the new world map and biomes, so hopefully that will be finished in a few months and will give the game a lot more variation. The biggest part will be adding the final elements and tying the existing stuff together into a more fulfilling game. We are hoping Kenshi will be ready for release in the next year, however it could take up to 2 – I prefer not to give official dates as I don’t want to screw fans around. People love the game already, but I’m hoping to make it significantly better before I am done.
Kenshi is currently available through Steam’s Early Access program and a special thanks to Chris Hunt for agreeing to answer our questions.