Kena: Bridge of Spirits Review – A Breathtaking and Captivating Wonderland
Kena: Bridge of Spirits
Review copy provided by the publisher
With its Pixar-like characters and beyond stunning animation, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is as charming as it is dark with plenty of surprises that will not only keep players enthralled for hours but also captivate their hearts.
Ember Labs might not be, as yet, a studio many people would recognise in association with video games since much of their endeavours have been in animated commercials and short films like Terrible Fate, based on The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask but please, don’t let that fool you.
Announced in 2020, Kena: Bridge of Spirits flew onto our radars with its cute and adorable gameplay featuring Kena and her little rot friends and thus catapulted Ember Labs’ popularity within the industry with many already marking Kena down as their most anticipated game of the year.
Of course, with this being the studio’s very first game, reservations are naturally justified but what many aren’t prepared for is how this relatively unknown indie team has taken an idea and not only wrapped it up in the most visually appealing animations I have seen outside of a Pixar movie but they’ve also included a deeply interesting and moving narrative set within a world that’s simply dripping in interactive beauty.
Note: I’ve tried my best to keep this review as story spoiler-free as possible, however, themes and characters are briefly discussed.
You play as Kena, a young spirit guide who takes on the role of helping stuck spirits cross over and find peace and in the process, uncover the mysterious story surrounding the demise of a village. Players won’t have to wait long into the gameplay before they meet the friendly yet shy but too cute for words Rot, who can be found hidden in different parts of the environment. With the help of Kena’s staff, she’s able to coax them out where they will play a vital part in her journey to reach Taro, a wise elder who fell to a mysterious plague that afflicts the land
These little furry creatures who follow Kena everywhere can sniff out collectables, gems so you can buy items and cute hats for your rot, hidden items, help with puzzles and even have your back when it comes to fighting enemies although many will run and hide until it’s safe. Once your Courage meter is stacked up from yellow orbs dropped from defeated enemies, the Rot can be directed to kick some corrupted spirit butt.
The environmental storytelling is where Kena really comes to life and this is also where Ember Labs has hit a home run.
The UI is simple and easy to use without a mess of fiddly controls and combos to get used to. All the key ingredients that you’d expect are implemented – an upgrade tab where you can level up Kena’s abilities and the rot, a map of the land that includes where to go and important landmarks and also a tab for your found spirit items.
When facing off against the game’s pesky corrupted spirits who woke up and chose violence, Kena has an arsenal of effective tricks to wipe them out that includes straightforward melee attacks, her spirit bow, spirit bomb and spirit dash although many of these are obtained as you level Kena up throughout the game. Kena also has a powerful blue bubble shield that acts as a defence and she’s also able to dodge oncoming attacks as well as using the shield to parry, providing a few seconds of slow-mo sequences.
For this playthrough, I chose to play ‘Story Mode’ which meant that enemies weren’t as tricky to kill but let me tell you, just because you choose this difficulty doesn’t mean that Ember Lab will go easy on you. From what I’ve seen, the devs like to cheekily test you and spice things up a little so you’re not too comfortable by adding in a boss fight that might take more time and skill than what you initially bargained for.
As for the shrine puzzles, well, they are just a delight to solve unless you are like me who overthought almost all of them. I think I did this mostly because of how incredibly the game is made and how intricately it’s designed so, in turn, I imagined the puzzle element to follow through with the same concept. In reality, the in-game puzzles were straightforward. As long as you don’t overcomplicate them and really look at your surrounding environment, you’ll breeze through them all.
The environmental storytelling is where Kena really comes to life and this is also where Ember Labs has hit a home run. One of the more difficult things for devs, I would imagine, is how to keep the player interested and engrossed as they make their way from A to B. Throughout my entire playthrough, I can honestly say that there wasn’t a moment of boredom or where I lacked curiosity. With so much to take in regarding the game’s breathtaking scenery, rich lighting design, weather dynamics, chests to open, puzzles and points of interest scattered around, the world felt truly alive at all times and an utter joy to explore.
One of the things I wasn’t prepared for in Kena: Bridge of Spirits is that even though it has bags of charm and oozing cute appeal, a really dark undercurrent flows fairly strongly throughout.
If you’re a fan of cliff scaling as seen in Uncharted or Tomb Raider, you’ll be pleased to know that Kena takes some of these well-known mechanics on whilst travelling across the map. Clinging and jumping across mountain edges was a lot of fun and what made it even better was having my little rot family spurring me on at every leap. As you find more fast travel places to warp to across the map, Kena finds a new way to traverse the treacherous terrain with the help of her staff that’s a brilliant feature but I’ll keep that a secret until you discover it for yourself.
One of the things I wasn’t prepared for in Kena: Bridge of Spirits is that even though it has bags of charm and oozing cute appeal, a really dark undercurrent flows fairly strongly throughout. As the game unfolds, you come across characters who need your help with their very own interwoven stories that are filled with grief, struggle and despair and that sees Kena explore the deeper and darker places of the map, its story and her very own narrative. Towards the end of Kena, the game took on a God of War type theme in where I was faced with pretty unnerving spirits in an all-out battle that incorporated flames and dramatic environmental elements that were reminiscent of the fiery pits of hell.
For any studio, no mind an indie studio taking on a game for the first time, to incorporate so much into a game and to do it well is a huge accomplishment and Ember Lab has made it seem as though they have been doing it for years. The only issue I came across was a slight stuttering in one of the boss fights that lead to the game freezing but I was able to pick up again from where I left thanks to it autosaving just beforehand.
Besides that, I really can’t recommend Kena: Bridge of Spirits highly enough that will see players partake in a meaningful journey absorbed in a vibrant world filled with fluid animations that cries out to be explored. With the game’s added photo mode, expect to add on a few more gameplay hours as you fill up your gallery with lots of cute Rot pictures, too.