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Premature Evaluation: Kenshi

Meet the Gurpsons

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Every week we cast Brendan into the early access badlands in nothing but rags. This time, the hot mess of genre that is survival-strategy-city-builder-RPG Kenshi [official site]

You could call Kenshi an RPG, you could call it a survival game. Or you could call it a chaotic jumble of good ideas stitched together via a user interface that would make a Wurm player eat their keyboard in a blind rage. I mention Wurm Online only because this feels like the closest comparison. Except this isn’t online. It’s set in a single-player fantasy Japanese world of skeletal robots and bony animals of burden and it’s got a reputation for toughness. My favourite line in the trailer is: “nobody will help you when the fog-men are eating your legs”. A line both frank and representative. How would I fare in this hostile landscape? Let me tell you the saga of the Gurpson clan.

Gary Gurpson (and his bonedog)

This was my character. Faced with a character creation screen, I normally like to put all the sliders to max (or min) and play as whatever monstrosity is born of a dedication to extremity. This time I made somebody normal-looking – Gary Gurpson. You’re offered a choice of stories when starting a new game, which determine what goods or equipment you have at the outset. You can be a wandering trader, low on money but stocked up on goods. Or a group of “nobodies” who have strength in numbers but are poverty-stricken in all other respects. There are others, but I opted for the ‘Man and a dog’ scenario. Gary would start with a pet bonedog, who would prove useful in exactly zero ways.

The first thing you’ll notice is the UI. It’s a mix of buttons, acronyms, menus and submenus that is ferociously ugly and a pain to use. The tutorial does its best to explain the basics but it feels like only patience and death will deliver a deeper understanding of the many systems and commands here. You can also zoom in and out to the point where you might confuse this with a strategy game. Indeed, there is a vague Mount and Blade feeling to it. You can travel between towns on the map and fight as a bounty hunter for local authorities, for example. There’s a faction system too, with meters that show how much certain groups dislike you. You’re also expected to form a large squad, eventually roaming the land with a small army. But there’s no deeper system of dialogue and roguishness. It’s also not easy to dive straight into these elements of the game. You’re weak and useless at the start of your adventure and, in my case, alone. If you don’t count the bonedog (I don’t).

As Gary Gurpson, I tried to make friends with the farmers of the settlement he appeared at, but nobody wanted to talk to us (only certain characters have a speech bubble). My hunger meter was going up and I was worried about my future in a land where I understood nothing. Any assumptions you bring to Kenshi from foreign quarters will be rewarded with confsuion. I thought I should get some resources, so I clicked on some trees, to no avail. Rocks too offered nothing. The crafting and building requirements here are totally different, something I would only learn later.

Hungry and penniless, I resorted to sneaking into the nearby villagers’ sleeping quarters and stealing everything on the shelves. A sneak toggle makes sure you try your best not to be seen. I came out of the house, pockets bulging. I took flour, fabrics, fuel and a hacksaw, amid other pieces of bric-a-brac. I also spotted a book called “the Holy Flame” sitting on the shelf, which I assume is this world’s Bible. I stole that too.

But there was a second house in this settlement. And I’ll be damned if Gary will be satisfied with only burglarising one building this afternoon. I went inside the house next door to see what it held. It held a merchant! Or a “farm leader”. But for my purposes, he was willing to trade.

This was good news, since it meant that I could sell back the very same things I had just stolen. A master plan. The mainstay of any good RPG. But Kenshi again did not fit neatly with my expectations. The merchant was smarter than he looked. He at once recognised the mug that I was trying to hawk to him as belonging to his own people.

“Paladins!” he shouted.

That must be the local guardsmen, I thought, although I won’t be waiting around to find out. I didn’t expect to be running away from my first town so soon, but a thief’s life is a hard one, especially when common farmers have such zeal for property law, on top of an impressive knowledge about who owns which drinking receptacle. A little counter in one part of the nebulous UI told me that I was “committing a crime” and needed to stay out of sight for 20 more seconds. I obliged.

There was a river nearby the town. A perfect place to set up my first shack. The building options are a tad confusing, however. You can plant foundations anywhere deemed far enough from the nearest town but you need a generic resource called “building materials” as well as other resources – vegetables for a small veg patch, a sleeping roll for a camp bed, and so on. I had nothing, so only a wireframe of my shack would ever be built. A relief, when I think about it, because it means that pack of “River Raptors” appearing over the horizon will have nothing to destroy.

I ran a few metres away from the riverside and let the dinos pass. Bonedog followed me, not out of loyalty or fear, but because earlier I had right-clicked on my own character and instructed him to “follow”. An instruction he would obey from today until his last day, which are the same thing, it turns out. The raptors marched on, caring nothing for my wireframe home.

I was waiting until they were completely clear of the area. But then I saw another merchant – a travelling one! – walking along the road with his caravan. I had to intercept him before he reached the farm town, and sell him my definitely-not-stolen property. I caught up to him and showed him my mug. He recognised it immediately.

All at once, his guardsmen were unleashed upon both bonedog and I, and I was so laden down with stolen flour and fabrics that I couldn’t outrun them.

They hit me on the head, in the chest. I fell down unconscious. A meter on my character showed that I was bleeding too. Behind me, bonedog was also knocked out. The caravan guards rifled through my belongings and left me on the side of the road, where callous passers-by simply ignored me.

A problem: how do you heal yourself in this game? According to the tutorial which I only read much later, you simply press a little heal icon above your character while carrying a first aid kit. But when you’re unconscious, you cant heal yourself, can you? That makes sense. You need someone else to come and patch you up. I didn’t know these exact rules at the time, however, so I tried all manner of things to apply these bandages – double-clicking the aid kit, right clicking my dude, pressing different buttons on the UI. In the end, I tried one last thing: click and drag the first aid kit onto my body. It fell on my head.

Now the only thing that could save my character was lying on top of me, as if Gary had tried to patch himself up in his last moments but couldn’t understand how to open the child-proof first aid box. It was midnight. Three patrols passed by the dying frame of Gary Gurpson, lying helpless at the side of the road. They did not help him. Bonedog was dead.

By ten past three in the morning, Gary was dead too.

Weirdly, the game just continues on. There’s no ‘game over’ screen, even though there’s no way for me to keep playing – I have no other characters and no way to interact with the world. Nevertheless, the patrols keep passing, the river keeps flowing. In a few hours, the sun will rise. My character’s corpse will soon rot, in that most videogame way, by vanishing in a single puff because the game doesn’t like useless objects lying around taking up computing power. An ignominious death for a master thief.

But Gary isn’t the only Gurpson in this wilderness.

Polly Gurpson

Gary’s sister appeared outside a bar in some small outpost in the desert. She never liked her brother.

I started her as a “wanderer”, which means she at least begins with a handful of money. With that, she bought a backpack, a loaf of bread and some dried meat from the barman inside. I did this before realising it might have been more helpful to buy building materials – that generic resource you need to build a shack among other things. But Polly isn’t the settled sort anyway, I firmly decide. She’s a wanderer! She will travel from town to town, bag on her back, scavenging what she can and living the nomadic dream.

Off she goes to the north, and soon arrives at a cliff edge overlooking the nearest proper town: the settlement of Clownsteady, which sounds like one of my made-up names, but no, it’s really in the game.

But after asking around and exploring this sandy den of voiceless citizens, there doesn’t seem to be anything to do, unless I want to try stealing again. But Polly isn’t like her scheming, dishonest brother. She won’t steal.

A visit to this town’s bar reveals that you can hire people to join your squad and fight on your side. This is generally how you’re supposed to build yourself a better life in Kenshi. With more people (not just fighters) you can delegate more jobs. If you are lucky enough to own a farm, for example, you can assign multiple people to work the land, while others stand guard or craft items or research things at a tech desk. That’s the game in its strategy, settlement-building mood. But from a single person, it feels difficult to reach that ideal. Everyone in this bar costs way too much to hire. One of them demands 6000 cats. Do not be alarmed, this is only the name of the currency. I myself have 17 cats.

I look around the houses and buildings of Clownsteady. there’s a cool tower in the corner of the city, embedded into the walls. You can buy vacant houses like this to live in, a pop-up tutorial informs me. This one is 28 grand. I decide to leave the city.

Following a nearby river to the wetlands, I come across a swamp turtle herd in the middle of the night. They roam around like giant, shelled elephants. Wonderful.

The animals of this world are excellent, it must be said. There are boney buffalo in pastures, big-footed creatures that roam the towns as pack mules, dino-looking animals prowling in packs, blood spiders creeping around in the marsh. It feels like an alien planet and I find myself appreciating this janky life in the countryside, despite the hard-to-manage camera and the daft, button-filled screen.

As morning breaks over the wetlands, Polly finds some new friends – swamp ninjas. They seem like decent and honourable folk, so I start following them, walking only a few meters behind the group of six well-armed fighters.

They don’t seem to care about my presence. Maybe when they get into a fight I can loot some of the corpses. And in exchange I can tell all the readers of RPS what brave and talented warriors these swampfolk are. A perfect, symbiotic relationship.

As it turns out, they just didn’t notice me. When they finally do, on the way up a cliff path, they have something else in mind.

“You’re in swamp territory now, girl,” says one of the ninjas suddenly, “Time to pay the toll in loot.”

I don’t like swamp territory anymore. Within seconds I am unconscious, battered and sliced by those traitorous swordspeople. My food has been stolen, not that I can eat it as I lie on the rocks unconscious. The swamp ninjas wander off toward their home – I can just about make out a temple in the foggy marsh over the hill. It’s the last thing I see as Polly Gurpson dies, alone and destitute.

You might think that’s enough failure and mortality to judge Kenshi: The Videogame. An obtuse if interesting blend of homemaking, merc-hiring and mug-stealing. But we’re not done yet. What about the ones who Gary and Polly left behind? What about the Gurpson family?

The Gurpsons

Here are the rest of the Gurpson clan.

This is Mama Gurpson.

And here’s Papa Gurp.

Here’s firstborn daughter Sally.

This is middle child Skimbo.

Jazzina is the youngest and most ill-tempered.

And, uh, this is Bosco.

They start at a rocky outpost outside the ‘border zone’. But the family, unlike their two wayward lambs (RIP), have a plan. This starting scenario is called “Freedom Seekers” and is inexplicably described as an “easy/hard combination”. With this setting, the game starts you with 6 people, well-equipped with building materials, food and 4000 cats. In other words, we aim to make a life for ourselves and this time we actually have the resources to do it.

Mama Gurpson takes the lead (I right-click with each family member selected and choose “follow” like they are all spiritual successors to bonedog). After consulting the map, we decide to head for the presumably more fertile lands near the water to the south east, where we will plant crops, start a farm, become self-sufficient and sell any excess food to the nearby outpost. For anything else, we can send someone to the nearest town or city. Eventually, we’ll use research tables and other gameguff to build walls and defences. This will ensure our new settlement is secure from raiders and jerks. It is a plan worth savouring.

“No more,” I can imagine Mama Gurp saying as she leads the family through a dusty valley in the border zone, “no more will the Gurpsons play the victim!”

“Kill em and strip em!” shouts a voice from the hillside.

What?

“Hold up!”

Oh dear.

“Give us all your money!”

Before I have time to count the huge gang of dust bandits running down the hill to scalp us and take our gear, or even to read all the little aggressive barks they make in their teeny-tiny dialogue font, every single Gurpson except Mama Gurp decides to play the hero. This is because they have an aggressive combat stance on by default, and to change it you have to click on each of them and set them to passive. Something I have neglected to discover until now. Only the family’s mother has the gumption to stay back but once her children look to be in trouble, she flies into the same combat rage and takes out her katana. I can do nothing but watch as each of the Gurpsons are knocked out or cut down by the dust bandits.

In the end, only Jazzina is left. She is viciously fighting all of the bandits at once, like some kind of cornered wolverine. She’s the only Gurpson with combat gear and a decent blade, but even she cannot hold off the dusters. She is knocked out and the bandits rifle through our pockets, with an odd half-heartedness, leaving most of what we own untouched. They walk away, I can only assume, with disgust. Like a mugger who demands your phone and is suddenly faced with an old Motorola.

Meanwhile, the Gurpsons lie there, all six of them knocked out cold. Bleeding, wheezing, dying. I’m ready to give up on another run and finally be done with this game.

But what’s this, Jazzina stirs! She’s still alive, but because the bandits are still hovering around their fires close by, she is automatically “playing dead” – a surprising game mechanic that ensures you aren’t immediately attacked once you wake up. But one that also means a long period of watching an unmoving character model on the ground, as I soon discover.

It’s a horrible situation, nonetheless. Jazzina is alive, she’s awake. She could get up and go to her family members – heal them with the first aid kits the robbers decided not to take, save the lives of her kin. But the instant she gets up she might be spotted and cut down again. Then who’ll be left to save the family? So far I’ve been taking Kenshi very lightly, but this is a genuinely cruel dilemma.

She only has one dark and terrible option: wait until nightfall and pray that the family can stay alive where they lie. When the dark of night comes she can get up in sneaking mode, where the darkness will boost her chance of not being seen. Then, she can move to each of her family and use the first aid kits to fix everyone up.

But this planet, this world, is a curse. It must have some kind of funky summer. The sun stays and stays and stays. It does not go down until 10pm. In quick succession the pop-up messages bring grim news. Papa Gurpson has died. Sally Gurpson has died. Bosco Gurpson has died.

But the sun is finally low enough to act. Jazzina gets up and remains unseen by the bandits idling by their campfires only 30 or so yards away. If she acts quickly she can still save Skimbo, who is losing blood, and her mother, who is only a little further away.

I move Jazzina to Skimbo, and he gets patched up. But he won’t wake up for a while yet. It looks like he needs to regenerate some blood. Jazzina starts towards her mum, only to see the old lady take her final breath. We were too late.

After a short, sad wait, Skimbo wakes up. I want the pair to get out of there ASAP. But there might still be something left in the bags of our brothers and sisters. We lift as much as we possibly can – building materials, food parcels, blueprints, iron plates – and start crawling away, with our broken legs and busted stomachs. A sandstorm has started. The pair move slowly through the dark and the blistering sand. Will this trauma never end?

At 6am, they reach the swamp, still clutching their broken body parts. A village stands in the waters, houses on stilts, workers in the rice paddies. Safety.

Jazzina and Skimbo enter the village. For some reason, Jazzina has a 20,000 cat bounty from the members of the Holy Fire, whoever that is. I don’t know if this happened because of the bandit fight or if she has always had this price on her head, from some pre-game kerfuffle with the authorities. Maybe she too stole a mug. Maybe it’s a Gurpson family tradition to be a wanted criminal. In any case, it doesn’t matter. There’s no Holy Fire here. Only swampers. The gate guards let them enter without trouble. One spins to look at Jazzina briefly but, to my relief, does nothing.

The family’s plan is no longer the plan. The wheat we meant to plant and much of our other material was lost in the attack. Jazzina and Skimbo barely escaped with their lives. Skimbo still walks with a limp. I’m not sure if that will ever heal. This is it for them, I think. A life in the swamp is better than a death in the desert. Miraculously, property prices in the wetlands are much more affordable than the big city.

They find a shack worth 2000 cats – they have enough for that, somehow – and they can also scrape together a sleeping bag and some riceweed. Some day, maybe they’ll learn to grow rice. They will become swampers themselves.

Jazzina stands by the fire. Skimbo rests. With luck, they will spend the rest of their days here.

It might not be what Mama Gurpson wanted. But for a Gurpson to survive their first day in Kenshi at all… well, that’s a triumph in itself.

Kenshi is £12.99/$19.99 on Steam. These impressions are based on build 1848375

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Who am I?

Brendan Caldwell

Features Editor

Brendan likes all types of games. To him there is wisdom in Crusader Kings 2, valour in Dark Souls, and tragicomedy in Nidhogg.

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