I’ve honestly had a really tough time coming up with how I want to open this one. Personally, I’ve been ridiculously excited for the game since it showed up at the June 2020 PS5 Showcase, with it’s charm and beauty captivating me. Even though I’m probably a bit biased on the game, I wanted to review it so badly, and arguably talked the PR team’s ears off over at Ember Lab (sorry about that :D). Well, finally release day eve came up, and in my inbox lay a code for this wonderful title I was waiting for. Yeah, there was a bunch of hubbub right before about review embargos and codes not getting sent out, but my concern has been in one area: whether the game I had been waiting over a year for could possibly live up to my lofty expectations. Not only has Kena: Bridge of Spirits managed to meet them, but it has somehow found a way to surpass my hopes of what was possible in this studio’s debut.
It’s hard to decide just where to start with this one, so let’s go right to the beginning. You play as Kena (pronounced kay-NUH for all of you like me who kept saying KEE-nuh), a young spirit guide who has the job of assisting spirits, who are stuck in limbo between this world and the next, to move forward. Kena has sensed that something is off at the Mountain Shrine, and upon reaching the base of it finds a Village and the surrounding area corrupted by a poison that is killing the land. It’s up to her, with the help of little creatures known as Rot, to clean everything up and usher several tormented spirits to their next destination.
On that note, you’re going to be making your way through an absolutely gorgeous world in order to accomplish your goal. I’m floored by the visuals on display, especially considering this is a tiny fifteen person team at Ember Lab producing AAA quality. The mountain forests, the rolling fields, the corrupted caves and lairs all are beautiful to behold, with rich foliage and clammy rock surrounding you. This makes its way into the enemy design as well, with the hulking heavy soldiers a real treat to look at. Everything is of a Pixar-esque caliber, and while this studio is led by former animators, this seems like a level of graphical fidelity you’d find after a team had been around the block for awhile, not in their very first game.
If you’re looking to play on PC instead of PS5, the game can look and run even better, and if you have the power, Kena’s world is even more stunning at 4K and 60 fps (or higher). There are plenty of graphics settings to tweak to your liking, but the gameplay we captured on PC has everything cranked up to max. The only thing missing here are the DualSense features (which we’ll get to) and proper button remapping support. While you can remap every action, you can only have one button assigned to each action even if the default setup doesn’t. So if you want to remap normal attacks to the face buttons, you’ll have to do a lot of finagling to get it to work before you just give up and go back to the standard. That being said, the extra visual power is well worth the tradeoff.
Besides just looking pretty, Kena: Bridge of Spirits also plays extremely well, another feather in the cap of this fledgling group of developers. I’m playing on PS5, and went with the performance mode, and while I’ll get an occasional dip it runs at a decently smooth sixty frames. As for how the game plays, my best comparison is a mixture of the very first Jak & Daxter game and Beyond Good and Evil. This is a love letter to a generation of PlayStation 2 goodness, and I mean that in the best possible sense you can imagine. The only difference really is that it feels modern, like these concepts were ripped from the past but given the necessary attention to work with today’s ideas and advancements. Even better, the game just continues to get more and more fun to play, with bigger areas bringing new challenges as well as equipping you to take them on.
For example, the areas are largely open to explore (with a well designed map system to help you get around), and while they’re not nearly as large as say Horizon Zero Dawn, it knows how to make itself feel massive in it’s own way. Maybe it’s just my expectations, but I’m blown away by the scale Kena: Bridge of Spirits somehow contains, similar to how I felt playing Jak 2 back in the day when open world games weren’t the norm. Not only that, they feel properly filled; maybe not abounding with things to do, but it always feels like just enough. Even with the world being smaller than some others, I also appreciate that Ember Lab took the time to add a fast travel system via specific shrines on the map. With the SSD of the PS5 working double time, it’s easy to maneuver around each location within seconds.
There are plenty of different quests/jobs you’ll be able to undertake, some as simple as having the Rot put a statue back into place, or others taking a step up with testing your accuracy with the bow in a shooting challenge that unlocks another Rot. One of the tasks I absolutely love is the cursed chests, which are locked to a specific battle challenge (in the immediate area) you’ll have to complete in order to open them. Nothing in Kena: Bridge of Spirits is going to be as intricate as a Fallout quest, but everything is fun and lines up with the things you’ve done in games like Sly Cooper and the aforementioned PS2 classics. Besides these, there are a ton of collectibles, and thankfully the game outlines how many you still have to find on the map.
Now, before we get into the combat of Kena, let’s discuss the Rot that I mentioned in the last paragraph. These little black blobs are absolutely adorable, and the way the game uses them is amazing. As you collect them, you find them useful in many different ways, and the best part about them is that you won’t spend any time babysitting them as they don’t die as most NPCs do in combat scenarios. This is handled via “they’re scared little creatures and you have to build up their courage by fighting to build up a meter”, which is a decent way to explain away the super moves they provide. Using these can deal high damage, and is quite helpful in moments where your health may be low. Where the Rot are even more helpful is assisting with lifting different objects to find more Rot, move statues back into place, or even move a box to help Kena get to hard to reach areas. There’s even a super-powered Rot ability; giving them the water from a flower to change them into a rushing cavalcade of Rots that mimic their original form and can take out the corruption as well as unlock and heal different areas. They aren’t completely helpless without you though, as they can feed on the corruption flowers once you’ve cleared the enemies away, cleansing the location you’re in.
Getting to the place to use the Rot in that manner is the key, and the combat in the game is well handled. Every time I thought it was getting a bit stale, the gameplay would open up with a piece of new gear, with a total of three in your arsenal. You start with just the basic staff, fighting through the opening tutorial that seems somewhat bare, and it was honestly somewhat worrisome. Suddenly there’s a Breath Of The Wild type moment showing the title, and away I went with the game opening the upgrades area. These feature what you’d expect, with unlocking new moves such as a dashing strike and others, and all work well in expanding your playstyle. But just as the staff combat started feeling a bit tiresome, the bow unlocked in the first section. The bow is probably the crown jewel of the Kena experience, feeling like a precision device and rewarding not only accurate shots but a fully drawn bowstring. This completely turns your fights on their heads, and alternating between both of these weapons feels satisfying. For even more variation, you also acquire a “spirit bomb” which allows for a bit more variety, even if it doesn’t hold the same impact as the bow. All of these have meaningful upgrades, everything flows together to keep you engaged, and it all works wonderfully.
One of the more surprising things for many when it comes to combat is going to be the level of difficulty that can be present. While there are plenty of “grunts” present, some of the creatures you’re going to encounter are going to have a steeper learning curve than expected. This applies more to the heavies/mini-bosses, but it’s no less true. Comparisons may point to Dark Souls by some, and while it’s not completely wrong in figuring out the patterns of these enemies, I’d liken it more to the most recent God of War. It’s challenging without being infuriating, and even though you’re probably going to die on the regular (especially versus the bosses, Taro took me out quite a few times), each one is crafted in a unique way to make these confrontations into an adversary you can’t wait to best rather than a frustrating inconvenience. They are a part of the journey, and are a fantastic inclusion to what some may have thought to be a “kiddie game”.
Speaking of the journey, this may be one of the stronger points to Kena: Bridge of Spirits. Everything is told subtly, with the sections leaving you with a part of the picture that you uncover the closer you get. Part of this is finding the memories of the main spirits inflicting terror on the sections of the game, and the subsequent humanization of each of their plights. They aren’t doing what they are intentionally, rather they’re driven to it because of their grief of failing people close to them. At the end of your encounters with these spirits, with them finally free of the corruption binding them, we get to see a long beautiful cutscene tying the smaller ones you’ve been fed on your way here together, and it’s done with great aplomb. Let me just tell you this, if you’re not almost in tears at the conclusion of Taro’s story, you might need to check yourself.
We’ve talked a lot about playing the game, and as important as the gameplay and graphics are, the immersion to what you’re doing is equally important. This is two-fold for me, with the soundtrack and the Dualsense controller, which I’ve found to impact my experience to a high degree when done correctly. Starting with the soundtrack, it’s just a thing of beauty, and has been since the first trailer. The almost Oriental flair, the cartoony xylophone strains, along with an epic, building strings section, almost always finds the perfect moments to place it’s melodies. As for the Dualsense controller, it may not be nearly as on point, but the haptics are a nice touch, with some nice pulses at different spots. I’m not a big fan of the squishy right trigger with heavy attacks, but that’s balanced out with an incredible tension when using the bow (accompanied with a well chosen sound from the controller speaker).
I’ve gone through this mostly without any cons, and for me that’s because there really aren’t many. There is some heavy pop-in at some dense locations of the game, and I have had a few frame rate stutters. I also encountered a weird design choice with the boss fights. You have to return to a circle on the ground where you’ve used relics to summon them if you die. In the second section there is a little spot where you climb a small portion of the tower in the level to face the boss, but that completely disappears after you die and you still have to restart from the circle, which then plays the cutscene again before skipping you to the top of the tower. It’s just an odd decision, and while I’m fine with skipping an unnecessary climb, it feels off to bypass it.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits
I’m not sure how Ember Lab did it, but I walked away from Kena: Bridge of Spirits with my expectations surpassed to a much further extent than I could have imagined. The visuals are breathtaking, the gameplay evolves in meaningful ways, and the heart the story contains has no bounds. You’ll find it hard to come across a more wholesome and beautiful game in 2021 than Kena: Bridge of Spirits, it’s everything I wanted it to be and more.