There have been so many games I’ve shied away from this year because of lack of time. Any game that demands 10+ hours of my time means I probably won’t be able to finish it in a week and, through force of habit, that’s given me a subconscious aversion to them. This has even stopped me from getting back into any of my long running staples like Call of Duty or Destiny 2, just because I know that once I’m in them and wanting to play multi or grind loot, I’m going to have zero time for anything else. But then again maybe that’s the norm, and me the enterprising “game reviewer” that I am are seeking to continue an abnormal behaviour long beyond the point where it’s served its purpose. For whatever reason though I’m glad I was able to overcome the aversion I first felt when looking at Kena: Bridge of Spirits as whilst it’s something of a flawed experience, it has all the makings of something exceptional and it makes me excited to see more from Ember Lab.
You are Kena, a spirit guide who helps those who are still bound to this world, whether through trauma or having unfinished business, after death pass on to the next world. You’re seeking passage through a small town on your way to the Mountain Shrine when you come across an enraged spirit, steeped in corruption that has spread to the forest that he inhabits. Kena offers to help but he refuses, leaving her behind and shutting off passage through to the shrine. Upon entering the town you come across elder Zajuro, who guides her on her path to releasing the corruption of the town and unlocking a path through to the Mountain Shrine.
Kena is honestly one of the most beautiful stylized games I’ve played in a long time and I really have to apologise for the screenshots I’ve attached to this review. For some reason the HDR, which makes the game ALL THE MORE PRETTY, ends up ruining the screenshots I take with the Nvidia ShadowPlay. I think the issue might just be in the display of them but WordPress won’t allow JXR files to be uploaded “for security reasons”. Anyway, back on topic, Kena’s visuals feel on par with the big animation houses like Pixar and Dreamworks. Indeed it seems that Ember Lab main work before making Kena was in the advertising industry with many big brands under the belt. Of course I also have to admit that this kind of art style is kinda my jam, what with its whimsical fantasy setting with oh so shiny lights scattered around the place (lookin at you Ori).
Kena is a semi-open world styled game where you’re given a limited environment in which to explore, complete quests and ferret around for collectibles and currency that you’ll want for improving your character. The “semi” here is important as whilst the world feels open it’s anything but, requiring you to complete each section before you can move onto the next. I hesitate to call the combat soulslike as whilst it’s definitely taken inspiration from there it feels more like a tactical game of “find the right move to cheese this boss” than it is anything about gitting gud. The main progression comes from gathering Rot, cute little fellas who are responsible for breaking down anything dead or decaying and who are your main source of power. There’s 2 in game currencies to collect, one Karma which helps improve your abilities and crystals which you can use to buy all sorts of different hats for your Rot buddies. All in all, Kena is a deceptively simple game and that certainly helps with making it a much more immersive experience than it might otherwise have been.
Initially combat is a bit frustrating, especially as the difficulty curve follows the typical, uninspired path of simply throwing more and larger versions of the same enemy at you. Unlocking some of the more higher end abilities though changes things up dramatically, giving you a lot of options for both getting rid of large swaths of enemies quickly and giving you more OH SHIT buttons to hit when you’re about to get slapped around. To be sure though the boss fights start out as anything but fair, their movesets usually only deviating slightly but always just enough to surprise you on your first few attempts. I did manage to get a few one shots in here and there, but they were most certainly the exception rather than the rule. Doing that becomes especially challenging in later fights when the bosses have multiple phases and you’ll need to start all the way back at the beginning if you fail them.
Progression follows a similar curve, starting off achingly slow and then hitting a good pace where you’re able to pick up a new talent upgrade after every semi-major or major mission completion. For most of the abilities there’s not too much difference with the upgrades, usually quality of life improvements like extra arrows for your bow or similar, but some of the higher tier unlocks can really make a huge difference in your experience. They’re playstyle dependent though, so if you’re like me and want to be a huge dumb big hitter who gets fights over quickly then you’re not likely to favour other abilities that let you deal with things at range, for example. I should probably mention the hats, since they’re the only other collectible you have here, but they do nothing more than make the little horde following you look a little cuter which is fun enough in itself.
The platforming and puzzles could use a little more polish, especially considering the games more restrained environments. Whilst all 3D platformers suffer from precision issues to some extent Kena often has issues registering certain interactions, like when you’re jumping towards a wall that you need to grip onto or if you jump (but don’t double jump) up to a ledge, which you’ll fail to latch onto. Kena also has a habit of springing new and inventive puzzle mechanics on you without showing you what they are, which makes some of them incredibly frustrating as it can be quite esoteric, like needing watch which candles light up in a particular order (even though that hasn’t matter at all before, anywhere).
Technically Kena is well polished although there are a few areas that could do with some slight improvements or quality of life changes to make the overall experience that much better. For instance it’s pretty hard to tell when you’re getting close to out of bounds or not in some place you’re not meant to be, something that’s laughably easy to do given Kena wants to give you the impression you’re in a much larger world than it actually is. Similarly the limitation around needing to be next to a fast travel point to use a fast travel point just seems silly, especially when the game will take you well away from one before wanting you to trudge all the way back somewhere else. Small things like this would go a long way to eliminating some of the unnecessary frustration that I had during my playthrough.
Kena’s narrative is in a weird spot. Your character is essentially nothing but a vessel for the rest of the world to tell its story with. Whilst your core motivation is set out from the start there’s no reason as to why you want to get to the Mountain Shrine nor any real backstory as to who you are in this world. All I can remember off the top of my head is that you come from a long line of spirit guides and…that’s it. Why you’re helping these particular spirits, and want to get to this particular shrine is never elucidated and you never really develop a bond with any of the other characters beyond what’s required to have them move on. I’m not sure why this stuck with me so much but it felt like Kena being there was strangely foreign and that didn’t change over time. Perhaps this is due to the relatively light plot that doesn’t have too much to say about anything.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a fantastic first release from Ember Lab, their heritage in the advertising industry obviously paying dividends when it comes to audio visual stylings. The vast majority of the game is quite serviceable, providing an approachable experience that I think a wide variety of people will be able to enjoy, including some of the more challenging aspects. There are some first time jitters here, some that can be overcome with patches and others with this experience under their belt. Whether its with Kena again or not, I’m hoping to see more from Ember Lab in the near future.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 8 hours play time and 66% of the achievements unlocked.