Upon the initial revealing of Kena: Bridge of Spirits, there was a distinct aura of bedazzlement that overcame many gamers – including myself – that we were in for an absolute treat. It was no secret that independent developer Ember Lab, had their hearts set on creating a title that was both aesthetically pleasing as it was polished. Brothers and co-founders Mike and Josh Grier, had their hearts set on re-imagining The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, only for the pitch to be shot down by Nintendo in 2016. The viral short was a sensation that placed the studio on the map with “Terrible Fate” becoming their signature piece, hoping they could land their first major project with any first party studio. Kena: Bridge of Spirits was designed as an early tech demo which was shopped around, until PlayStation Studios – then Sony Interactive Entertainment – signed a console exclusive deal in late 2017.
With financial backing, Ember Lab grew to a team of 15 developers that went hands-on with Kena from its early stages, while the title was outsourced to additional teams while overlooked by Grier brothers. Its Pixar/Illumination-esque design lifts its casual charm, making the game a commercially attractive experience for gamers of all ages. To be honest, I’ve never seen a game sell itself on how alluring its design is without only little knowledge on premise or plot, yet Kena: Bridge of Spirits manages to pull this off. However, while the title itself may be a delightful trudge through wondrous sights, its overall execution is stumped by repetition that comes in form of both gameplay loop, and environment. Excelling in one portion of its delivery, Kena’s gameplay does suffer from some monotony.
The Right Place at the Rot Time...
To say the least, Kena: Bridge of Spirits isn’t deceptive in what Ember Lab were ambitious in achieving. If anything, a transparent demonstration in simplistic archetypes are set for more-or-less an adequate puzzle-platformer. While a stronger narrative could have emphasised more of its influence in presentation, given the studio’s roots of being an aspiring animation team in 2009, Kena’s campaign has just the right amount of each integral facet to intrigue players in continuing. It does become a minor grind and a bit of a fetch quest at some points, but it serves its purpose in wanting to steadily extrapolate a compressed escapade. It goes without saying that the title does not overstay its welcome, tallying a ten hour adventure that see’s our protagonist traverse lush forests engorged by wasteland environments, crawling with evil spirits.
The game follows our titular character, Kena, a spirit guide that aids souls that have purpose on earth to finish their journey before moving on to the after life. The necromancer makes haste towards the rumoured sacred Mountain Shrine, with help of small creatures that inhabit the area known as the Rot. These mystical creatures can be manipulated to either purge corrupted landmarks, or directing them as tiny labourers that help lift heavy objects to either clear a path or help Kena leap over tall boundaries. These are only two leading examples as you may unlock more mechanics that put the Rot to good use, but their primary goal is to guide Kena through the forest unscathed. Our heroine herself carries a staff in which she uses for close range combat, both which can be dealt in light attacks by pressing down R1, or charged by holding down R2.
Some RPG elements are involved as you collect more items hidden within chests, including an add-on that converts Kena’s staff into a bow that can be used in traditional means, or as a grappling hook. Kena’s defense system comes in form of a spirit shield known as the pulse ability, that looks oddly close to the Super Smash Bros. block bubble; even works similarly with the bubble having its own health gauge, depleting over time or when the spirit guide is attacked. The pulse can also be used as a weapon, teaming with the Rot in eradicating a corruption core. Directing the Rot towards the catalyst, then activating the pulse as a charge causes the corruption to burst, which opens new progress points and pathways for our hero to explore.
An endearing experience that should not be missed by any gamer that's looking for a whimsical escapade.
Paths are also blockaded by pulse gates that remain closed until you have solved its respective areas puzzle, then activating its area’s panel once it has signified to do so. The Rot will come in handy, but it should be noted that each use of your little minions will deplete your courage meter, which can then be replenished in battle. Meditating, and playing with the Rot will also alleviate any diminishing health, but is also a fun Easter egg to see how they interact with Kena. Collecting Masks along your journey will aid in unlocking specific gateways, and new abilities such as map pointers. The game itself does not present a mini-map, nor a compass that pinpoints a target of direction. Upon collecting Taro’s mask, you can equip it my pressing left on the D-Pad to help signify your next target or objective. The use of masks is a nice call back to the studio’s Majora’s Mask short film.
Simple, yet effective...
✔️Aesthetically mesmerising; one of the PS5’s best looking exclusives.
✔️Light hearted, action-adventure platforming that’s accessible to all ages.
✔️A lovable and endearing cast of characters.
❌Not much is told about our protagonist, other than her capabilities and some nuance.
While plot heavy, there’s no real back story told at Kena’s forefront leaving me bewildered to why exactly our hero is traversing this land than other to send troubled spirits on their way to the afterlife. While the plot expands over a certain period, nothing concrete is revealed until reaching the title’s closing act. However, the mystique was enough to encourage me to persist with the escapade, along with its absolutely mesmerising beauty. Outside of pre-rendered CGI sequences that are few and far between chapters, the game presents itself as a playable Pixar movie. A fine display in meticulous design over a pragmatic period given. A short, independent title given an extensive development cycle comes out the other end looking unbelievably stunning.
Yes, there is a quality leap between the in-game and pre-rendered engines but it’s barely noticeable. If anything, I was way too busy gazing at the incredible environments to even give thought that there was any downscaling between the quick movie events that broke up each arc. Now, there are some cumbersome moments that begin to take place after a certain period, and this is a hurdle to overcome that occurs mainly near the beginning-to-midway point of the title. It gets repetitive quickly. The hack and slash elements coinciding with managing your party of Rots does tend to become tedious, but using the title’s simple skill-tree will change things enough to get your over this hump.
As expected, the DualSense haptics and adaptive triggers play a role in the title, but aren’t anything revolutionary. The charge of your staff gives off minor retention in the R2 trigger, while the bow-and-arrow will tighten the sensation by only a fraction. The stereo-rumble will relay direction of oncoming foes or mini-bosses, or attacks from enemies, while an outward vibration can be felt activating your pulse bubble. The game’s UI/UX is pretty basic, along with a photo-mode that can be used to take some awesome shots. Posing Kena, changing her expression, the camera style and aperture along with other selections demonstrate exemplary variety for great promo shots. I had a blast playing around with this mode, creating poster-style screencaps that could very well be used as cover shots or boxart promos for the title.
I have to hand it to a great cast behind each character portrayed. An enriched and endearing charm is exuded through their unique personalities, whether cheery and playful or begrudged and mournful. The crew are an ensemble of newcomers to the industry, with Ayu Larassanti as our Spirit Guide, Kena. She’s guided early on by Sam Cavallaro and Joshua Vincent who play Saiya and Beni respectively. We meet Zajuro early on, voiced by industry great Vlastra Vrana (Deus Ex, The Outer Worlds). Other credits include Gita Miller, Amber Goldfarb (Watch_Dogs 2, For Honor), Todd Fennell (Thief, Monster Hunter Stories 2), and Masashi Odate as Toshi. Each bring an outstanding range in their performance as their respective characters, delivering an overwhelming magnetism to each quirk in their nature.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an absolute delight. An endearing experience that should not be missed by any gamer that’s looking for a whimsical escapade. You will lose yourself in this gorgeous world, brimmed with allure and excitement, only heightened by its characters and their unique resolve. While it does nothing to evolve or change the game in anyway, it does deliver in its promise of being a polished platformer that will unequivocally charm your pants off. It’s without question an essential in 2021, despite some minor drawbacks in its writing and creative premise. It does make good on its expectations for being that casual, cinematic game that everyone will fall in love with. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an adorable action-adventure that players will come away feeling overjoyed and elated.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an action-adventure video game developed and published by Ember Lab. The story follows Kena, a young spirit guide who uses her magical abilities to help deceased people move from the physical to the spirit world.