A game that has new and exciting ideas but executes them shoddily can be something of a disaster, but a game that relies largely on familiar, well-worn staples and nails their execution is pretty much guaranteed to be a good time. That’s what Kena: Bridge of Spirits is. Barring one or two exceptions, nothing in the game screams originality, with familiar mechanics and structuring taken from several inspirations, but it never fails in execution, and with a few interesting twists of its own, it crafts an engaging and immersive adventure.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits puts you in the shoes of the titular protagonist, a spirit guide who, as the game begins, arrives in an abandoned village. The village and the lands surrounding it are covered in a malignant corruption. The people that once inhabited these locations have slowly died off, and many spirits with unfinished business or unresolved traumas linger on in the world, contributing to the vicious cycle and spreading corruption of their own. It falls to Kena to help these tortured spirits find peace and move on, and clear the corruption that plagues the land.
"Nothing in the game screams originality, with familiar mechanics and structuring taken from several inspirations, but it never fails in execution, and with a few interesting twists of its own, it crafts an engaging and immersive adventure."
The biggest strength of Kena’s story is not the actual narrative, but the world that it is set in. The game is quite restrained in what it says and shows about the world, and nuggets of backstory and little details are peppered in infrequently. But there’s enough there to really draw you in. Kena’s world has a very distinct sense of place, a lot of which is, of course, made possible by the game’s visuals. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call this one of the most beautiful games I’ve played in recent memory. The environments look lush and gorgeous, with vibrant vegetation and abundant natural beauty. Character models are charmingly designed, and excellent animations both in cutscenes and gameplay contribute greatly to the game’s visual quality. Of course, given developer Ember Lab’s past experience with animation, it’s not a surprise that Kena excels in this area. Meanwhile, the excellent soundtrack never misses a beat either, very effectively complementing the game’s beautiful world with everything from somber tunes to dramatic melodies.
Where the story is concerned, the characters Kena meets is another one of the game’s strengths. On her journey to cleanse the village and the surrounding lands of corruption, Kena helps several lingering souls pass on, helping them come to terms with traumatic, guilt-ridden memories from their lives. You slowly unravel more about their past through flashbacks and fragmented details being doled out at a regular pace, and though the individual stories themselves aren’t extraordinary, they’re told well enough. The characters and their relationships are easy to invest in, and saying goodbye to characters that you’ve gotten to know as you help them move on always feels bittersweet. Kena herself is perhaps the only weak character in the game. Though there are passing mentions of her past, the game hardly develops her in any meaningful way. That she has no real arc herself is one of the more disappointing aspects of Kena’s story.
The gameplay, however, is where Kena really shines. Without ever doing anything new or unique, it consistently delivers an engaging, varied experience. Structurally, the game shares quite a few similarities with the hub-and-spoke design of classic Zelda games, where a central location leads out to a larger world with distinct areas, each with their own challenges. At regular intervals, you get new weapons that grant you new abilities, allowing you to explore new parts of the world.
"Structurally, the game shares quite a few similarities with the hub-and-spoke design of classic Zelda games, where a central location leads out to a larger world with distinct areas, each with their own challenges. At regular intervals, you get new weapons that grant you new abilities, allowing you to explore new parts of the world."
Kena: Bridge of Spirits isn’t an open world game, but across its single seamless map, it does provide plenty of room to explore with its wide-linear design. Exploration is always simplistic – you won’t ever have more than two or three optional branching paths at a time, and neither of them will be particularly elaborate – but it’s always rewarding. From cosmetics to currencies to activities that reward skill points (or karma, as they’re called in this game) to more of the adorable black critters known as the Rot, Kena ensures that you’re always rewarded for exploring areas thoroughly.
Speaking of the Rot- they are, of course, the big central hook in Kena: Bridge of Spirits. Early on in the game, Kena befriends a handful of these spiritual creatures, and discovers that they’re the key to healing the corruption that’s spread throughout the land. The Rot are a crucial ally throughout the game, and as you play more, your army of the little Pikmin-esque creatures will continue to grow. How much it grows depends on you- while several Rot are rewarded as part of the main quest, many more can be found by exploring more.
From puzzles to exploration to combat, the Rot serve an important function in most parts of the game. Puzzles often require you to order your Rot companions to move objects around, such as placing statues on pedestals, flipping switches, pulling ropes, clearing barriers made of corruption, or placing rocks to allow Kena to reach higher ledges. Of course, owing to the game’s Zelda inspirations, there are plenty of item-based puzzles as well, where you need to use items to traverse areas. The bow, for instance, can also be shot at blue flowers in world to pull yourself to them like you’re using a hookshot, while the bomb that you get later on levitates debris and rocks and temporarily freezes them in time, creating makeshift platforms across previously inaccessible chasms. By and large, puzzles are fairly straightforward, but there’s plenty of variety here, and they all require enough attention to not feel like meaningless busywork. The fact that puzzles and exploration often go hand-in-hand helps the game as well, making exploration more rewarding and puzzles more engaging.
"By and large, puzzles are fairly straightforward, but there’s plenty of variety here, and they all require enough attention to not feel like meaningless busywork. The fact that puzzles and exploration often go hand-in-hand helps the game as well, making exploration more rewarding and puzzles more engaging."
Combat is also a core pillar of Kena: Bridge of Spirits, and another area where the game benefits from simplicity and solid execution, barring some issues. Combat starts out pretty simple, with a light attack, a heavy attack, a dodge, and a shield that can also become a parry if timed right. A couple of new elements are briskly introduced though, and collectively, they ensure that there’s enough nuance here that combat never feels monotonous. There’s an impressive variety of enemies, each using their unique strengths and movesets quite effectively, and things get particularly interesting when combat encounters mix and match these different types of enemies to test the player. Kena: Bridge of Spirits can be a surprisingly difficult game at times, especially during boss fights (which, by the way, are intense, memorable encounters). Movement in combat can occasionally feel a little stilted and laggy though, and the resulting inaccuracies can be a little frustrating, especially in some of the more tense encounters.
The Rot, of course, are crucial in combat as well. The more you attack enemies, the more you build up your Rot platoon’s Courage meter (which can be expanded by finding more Rot), and once you’ve filled it up enough, you can summon them in battle for one action. They can temporarily immobilize enemies, allowing you to either get in a flurry of hits or be able to properly aim at a tricky weak point. Crucially, the Rot are also required for healing, which is done by using up flowers found in the environment. These are extremely limited though, which means you have to use them at the right time. Having to make snap decisions in the heat of battle about whether you want to use your Rot to immobilize an enemy or to heal yourself adds a nice layer of strategy to the proceedings, especially given how hectic and surprisingly challenging combat can get at times.
If there’s one semi-major issue I have with Kena: Bridge of Spirits, it’s that I wanted more of it than what was on offer. That’s not the worst problem for a game to have- I’ve enjoyed it so much that I wish it was a bit larger, maybe with a little more side content on offer, anything to give me reason to explore more of that world. The game doesn’t feel inadequate in its current form by any means, but with a little more meat on the bones, it could have been that much better. Nowhere is that more apparent than in its progression- the skill tree, such as it is, is miniscule and extremely restrictive, with many of the unlocks feeling surprisingly basic, like a running slam attack. Sure, some unlocks are useful, but by and large, progression feels very small-scale, and runs out of steam not far into the game.
"Combat starts out pretty simple, with a light attack, a heavy attack, a dodge, and a shield that can also become a parry if timed right. A couple of new elements are briskly introduced though, and collectively, they ensure that there’s enough nuance here that combat never feels monotonous."
In spite of the few minor issues I have with Kena: Bridge of Spirits here and there, it’s hard to deny just what an incredibly engaging experience it is. Almost all of it comes together to deliver a compelling game that’s a triumph at almost everything it sets out to do, even if it doesn’t set out to do much other than retread well trodden ground. When the biggest criticism I can level at it is that I wanted more of it, it definitely did something right. With its debut game, indie team Ember Lab has made a confident statement of intent.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Looks gorgeous; Excellent music; Endearing characters that are easy to invest in; Rewarding exploration; Engaging puzzles; Thrilling and surprisingly challenging combat; The Rot are used in puzzles and combat really well.
Kena's character is under-developed; Movement can be a little stiff at times; Bland, limited progression.