PlayStation Indie Spotlight: Kena: Bridge of Spirits

By Kes Eylers-Stephenson,
Kena: Bridge of Spirits will be adventuring onto PS4 and PS5 on September 21st. The adventure game from former animation studio Ember Lab has been popping up at PlayStation events for a while now. Each time, we here at TT were blown away by the strong art direction and the potential of the narrative. To give you the low-down on the game, we spoke with Josh Grier, the chief operating officer at developer Ember Lab to find out more about this beautiful adventure!

What is Kena: Bridge of Spirits?

Grier describes Kena as “an immersive experience combining fast-paced combat with exploration, and cinematic storytelling.” You will play as a young spirit guide adventuring through the forests in search of great evil.

But, what makes this game tick for players? “So many aspects of Kena are special to us: the cutscenes, the story, the boss fights, the music, the characters. It's hard to pick one and honestly, it really depends on the player.” We expect you lot, the TT community, to be telling us what you enjoyed when the game launches!

When does Kena: Bridge of Spirits release?

On September 21st you will be able to finally get your hands on the game for PS4 and PS5. That wasn’t always the case, however. The game was pushed from August to make room for extra development time for the tiny Ember Lab team.

“It’s been said so many times and it's worth repeating: making games is really hard,” Grier says about the delay. “Knowing where you are in the process is also extremely difficult especially for a team our size. Each of us wears dozens of hats, moving from one area of development to another. The planning and review team is the same as the production team which also overlaps significantly with creative. So, team members who plan the development process also work directly in several facets of production.”

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

So at what stage can such a small and multi-faceted team actually make the call about the release date? “We knew delay is right when the gameplay and visuals were all coming together, but it didn’t look like we would have time to polish everything to meet our goals. The team has been working on this project for a long time and expectations are really high so we wanted to give ourselves the best chance to create a memorable experience,” the team adds.

What is it like working with Sony?

We were curious about the nature of working with Sony after the recent shifts in PlayStation personnel and company direction on the indie side of the fence. Grier had nothing but praise. “Sony has been a wonderful partner for our team: supportive, encouraging, and always there when we need them. This is our first game of this scale and we’re really happy Sony saw the potential in our team and gave us the opportunity to make Kena.”

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

What is the story of Kena: Bridge of Spirits?

In all of the trailers so far, the story has been a curio. Though they revealed very little beyond the basic premise, the narrative hook of a young girl having to come into her own in a fantasy world has caught the imagination of the TT office. Grier elaborates, saying, “the story of Kena revolves around the human struggles of attachment, forgiveness, and finding peace. Often, the things that are most important to us in life are also the most difficult to lay to rest in the end.”

Kind of heavy, then. Grier would agree, saying “Kena: Bridge of Spirits builds on themes of life, loss, acceptance, and balance. On her journey to a sacred place of knowledge, Kena, a novice Spirit Guide, uncovers an abandoned village afflicted with corruption. Here, trapped spirits sow chaos and unnatural decay.

kena bridge of spirits

“In the sacred shrines of this abandoned village, she discovers wooden masks created to honour the lives of deceased villagers. The decomposing masks symbolize a spirit’s movement into the next life, but many of the masks remain intact.”

Of course, Kena needs some of the cutest allies to have ever existed to get through the source behind the corruption. “With the help of tiny forest creatures called Rot and her knowledge of the Spirit Realm, Kena faces the pain of her own loss as she untangles the secrets of this forgotten community.” It promises to be an exciting adventure, one filled with mature themes in a blissfully imaginative world.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

The Protagonist: Kena

Young protagonist Kena is soft-spoken and curious, but also a little enigmatic in the trailers thus far. We wanted to know how she took form in the creators' minds, and at what point they knew she was right for the game Ember Lab and Grier were making.

“While crafting an original world, story, and protagonist, each aspect often begins to affect the others,” Grier told us. “In the beginning, we knew we wanted to tell a coming of age story about a young Spirit Guide, but we soon began to ask ourselves how her experience level affected gameplay and story.” A young protagonist for a young games studio, then!

kena bridge of spirits

The voice actress of Kena is Ayu Dewi Larassanti, whom you can read more about on the Ember Lab website. Her voice work immediately sounded very different from conceptually similar characters. With that softer tone, lack of brash octaves, and a certain confidence in her own sensitivity, Kena and Ayu's voice seem to embody the journey that developing the character took Ember Lab on.

“Kena started out as a more novice Spirit Guide, but as we continued developing the game, it became very clear that she had some pretty serious skills! This found its way into our discussions about how far she had gone in her training, how much information she knew, then how much real-world experience she may have. While not a master, Kena begins the game with strong abilities and knowledge, but lacking experience. She still has a lot to learn, personal growth, and reflection to do. When the themes, plot, world, and character all start to blend together and influence each other positively, that’s when we know we have the right balance.”

kena bridge of spirits

The (Former) Antagonist: The Rot

The Rot are our new favourite creatures. Sure, they are responsible for the decomposition of life in Bridge of Spirits, but we've persued the internet and seen the little sooty critters dressed up as Sly Cooper and Kratos. These guys just couldn't be the antagonists, right? Grier makes it apparent that Ember Lab knew the power of the Rot.

"We made the decision to switch the Rot from antagonist to companions pretty early on and long before we pitched the prototype to the team at Sony. Looking back, it wasn’t much of a decision, it was more like an evolution involving trial and error. It became apparent early on that the Rot brought more to the gameplay and the story as friends rather than enemies."

The contrasts of Kena's protagonist, themes, and environments make for a fabulous pitch, but getting them all to vibe in the same context seems to have been a tricky ask for the creatives on the team. Grier said that "as antagonists, the Rot were not consistent with many of the game's themes: acceptance, forgiveness, and the natural cycle of life. It was a good decision all around. We love our little rot friends and hope everyone enjoys them as much as we do."

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

How does Kena: Bridge of Spirits play?

Gameplay is king. The interaction between player and game is what makes video games gleam amongst all the other entertainment mediums. That begs the question, how will the player interact with Ember Labs' world? "Exploring the beautiful environments and honing your combat skills are definitely important aspects of the game. However, there are also many secrets, collectables, and story details hidden all over the world!" Trophy hunters take note.

Pushing you forward into the leafy crevices of the forests of Kena are those little Rot. "You will be searching for Rot to join your team and gain access to new abilities, but you will also discover unique Rot hats to customize your little friends. Make sure to stay on the lookout for Memories that expand the backstory of the spirits you encounter, as well as Spirit Mail that will unlock additional locations, stories, and challenges!"

Transitioning from film to games

Josh explains that he and his brother, Mike, started Ember Lab as an animation studio. "In film and animation, you have complete control of the narrative. Obviously, this is not the case in games and we’ve definitely had to adapt." Indeed, the Grier brothers have said previously that it was tricky to swap into the less heavily restricted space of video games. Josh says that "it's been a lot of fun coming up with ways to share and reveal the narrative through environmental storytelling. It’s been challenging but in a good way — learning to combine cinematic direction with player freedom."

In the video above, you can see the team taking little figures and lights out into the forests of the real world to help create a more realistic touch to the in-game environment. Despite the cartoony aesthetic of Kena, this work seems like an essential part of the creative process for Grier and the other developers. "We’ve always enjoyed drawing inspiration from nature for our work. Even when we create fantastical characters and worlds we try to bring them to life using realistic lighting and textures.

"Much of the studio’s animation work combined location filming with CG characters," he says, harkening back to their past work. "This early work really influenced our development style and taught us a lot about adding realism to our characters. All of the enemies and environments in Kena started from references in nature. It is always inspiring to get outside and discover that nature has already created the exact element you need."

kena bridge of spirits

Does Kena: Bridge of Spirits use the DualSense functionality?

Kena is a cross-gen PlayStation game, so it is always curious to know how the PS5 version is going to make your DualSense rumble, twitch, and tense up. The Ember Lab were keen to use the new controller, Grier stresses, and that it will be used with a feature that the team were excited about. “The use of the DualSense controller when firing the bow is something that would not have been possible before the PS5. So, it's something we’re excited for players to experience.”

What is the Kena: Bridge of Spirits trophy list like?

While we at TT haven’t tracked the trophy list as of yet, Grier was very forthcoming about what the list will contain. “We wanted to reward players both for making progress in the game and for succeeding at specific challenges. Many of the trophies are earned when the player reaches important milestones in the main story, while others encourage the unique use of Kena’s abilities and skills.”

We loved that Grier also responded with an inkling of the creative process behind the trophy art. “In designing the artwork associated with trophies, we focused on imagery associated with the specific achievement in the art style of the world map to give it a unique feel.”

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

A huge thank you to Josh Grier and the Ember Lab team for answering our questions, and to Stephanie for being at the end of all our emails! Kena: Bridge of Spirits arrives on September 21st on PS4 and PS5. Will you be running around with the Rot? Let us know in the comments!
Kes Eylers-Stephenson
Written by Kes Eylers-Stephenson
Hey, I'm Kes! I'm a Staff Writer, and I've been here since 2021. What do I like? The Outer Wilds is top notch. The Witcher 3 blew my mind over the course of five years completing it. I want Burnout back — I really miss crunching mechanical wonders into walls to the sound of Guns N' Roses. Cool, now we are acquainted, I'll see you around.