Kena: Bridge of Spirits review

By Kes Eylers-Stephenson,
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is one of the most unexpected surprises of this year. This is the first game out of Ember Lab, a former animation studio, and that creative lineage can be felt in every nook and cranny of this action adventure's forest villages, fields, and mountain passes. You play as Kena, a young spirit guide, who is off on an adventure to help restore balance to a long-forgotten forest village. To reach the mountain shrine and discover the mysteries of this corrupted woodland and its decimated people, you will be platforming, fighting, puzzling, and talking to restless spirits with unresolved business. The game somehow overcomes a few foundational gameplay issues and will make you will fall deeply in love with it. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a fabulously creative experience, with beauty in its world design, a mature and emotional story, and some sublime boss fights. Ember Lab has done extraordinary well with its debut game, and Kena: Bridge of Spirits is one of the best games of the year so far.

kena BRIDGE OF SPIRITS REVIEW

There are two truly outstanding parts of Bridge of Spirits: the world and the story. When you start playing, Kena is already an experienced spirit guide. She can see those that are gone from the physical world, but remain tethered to it in spirit form because of unresolved business. Kena is seeking something that is causing unrest in a forest, and very soon she comes across two chubby-cheeked spirit siblings roaming through the foliage. At roughly the same time, Kena comes across your new favourite companions, the Rot.

These little fuzzy creatures are the stars of the game and will be useful gameplay tool from start to finish. They evaporate certain substances, helping you clear forest pathways and providing a killing blow to the enemies you will fight. They can be ordered to carry items for you to access new places, or form into a larger creature capable of destroying clusters of red root corruption. You collect them in hidden places in the game world slowly building up your army of little sooty devils. Though I want to save a dissection of the gameplay for a later point in the review, the more Rot you have, the more use they provide during travel, combat, and more. They are a smart mechanic tied to the core story and themes, are always in use, and constantly pop up around every corner to welcome you to a new part of the game world.

kena BRIDGE OF SPIRITS REVIEW

And what a game world it is. As you venture forward, you discover a village with its inhabitants long gone. However, our kind and mild-mannered protagonist, Kena, can see the restless spirits with unresolved emotional baggage. Connected to this sense of unease is the corruption, a red blight stemming in the green forest from a mountain shrine. This makes certain spirits and animals violent, as the lingering grief of the lost village population changes them into wood- and stone-infused creatures. This basic narrative premise sets up the adventure nicely, with Kena following spirits into new parts of the expansive map and discovering what happened to important characters in the downfall of the village. The village acts as a hub world, with parts gated off until you unlock new abilities and advance the story. Since these abilities are hidden in the trophy menu, I'll not spoil them for you here, either. The spirit bow is in the trailer, though, and that is the kind of substantial upgrade you can expect with each of the three mini-journeys tied to the main narrative.

In each case, you must find three relics to help put them to rest. In the first instance, two orphaned children are looking for their lost adopted older brother in a dark forest. Off you go! Now you are hunting for relics on a mountain, in a dark forest, and down some lantern-lined caves. You will revel in every moment because this green, earthy world that Ember Lab has created is rich with natural beauty. Every cave is decorated with lanterns, or bathed in Kena's ethereal blue light as she uses her spiritual powers. Climbing mountains gives momentary gorgeous vistas while you traverse waterfalls and falling rocks. This game might not be a graphical powerhouse in the sense of a AAA title like Ratchet & Clank, but it makes up for that with a confidently stylised and coherent art direction that relishes in the tranquility of the outdoors.

kena BRIDGE OF SPIRITS REVIEW

The hub-world village is full of character, bursting at each joint with unkempt foliage and seemingly ready to partially fall into the nearby river. Each new zone you unlock, within and outside village boundaries, is distinct and exciting. Honestly, the closest comparison here — and I cannot believe I am saying this — is God of War (2018). That semi-linearity in a faux-open world allows Ember Lab to pack Bridge of Spirits to the gills with detail, while still allowing for meaningful free exploration through platforming, puzzles, and combat. All of this is scored by a soundtrack by Bali-based group Dewa Putu Berata. It is unbelievably good and sounds totally different to anything else in recent years, with airy woodwind intruments and chant-like singing helping emphasise Kena: Bridge of Spirits' unique ambiance. Seriously impressive work from the environment artists, composer, and level designers.

However, this forest land is also given contextual meaning through a deeply mature and surprisingly morose story. Kena is at the heart of it all, with an unbelievably calm and confident voice work by Dewa Ayu Dewi Larassanti. Normally, this kind of quiet character is pushed aside for a loud, brash, and funny protagonist who spews jokes to try and keep the player entertained, much like a child in need of constant attention. Instead, Kena steps into the frame with peaceful assertion and eases the player into a game world without any expository dialogue. The on-point writing married with the brave creative choice results in world-building that serves the mystery of the adventure to a tee. Maturer studios than Ember Lab have failed at the tricky hurdle of exposition and world-building, but the young studio has succeeded emphatically.

kena BRIDGE OF SPIRITS REVIEW

Ultimately, though, this is a tale of grief and being able to overcome all the negative emotions that come with loss; like anger, aimlessness, and desperation. All the spirits you meet are in conflict with themselves, trying to untangle the hurt of losing a village filled with their loved ones. Each appearance of a new character is welcome, adding a new dimension to the unravelling mystery of the village in a satisfying way. Every character is well-rounded; the dialogue is sparse, but relevant. By the end of the game, I was truly moved by the high standard of writing and the frequently gorgeous animated cinematics that operate as mini-films.

The cutscenes are also the first notable drawback of the game, though. The story content is unrelentingly splendid, as is the quality of the animation, but you are constantly wrenched out of the playable space. This creates a bit of tension between the game and the story, sometimes feeling like the studio would have rather made an animation than the game itself. A few of the cutscenes could have played out in-game with few consequences in cinematic quality, and while it never spoils the game, it does feel uneven and slows down the pace of playing, even though the story is incredible in and of itself.

kena BRIDGE OF SPIRITS REVIEW

Let finally talk gameplay, shall we? I've been dreading it, because it is a complex mixed bag. As soon as I picked up the controller and moved Kena, my first thought was "oh no." The unfortunate reality is that she moves through the world in a way that doesn't feel or look good. It is almost like she is moving too fast, just skimming across the surface of the floor without any real interaction with the world. The same goes for many of the other animations, like jumping and swimming, both of which feel like — and this is going to sound harsher than I intend it to — default game engine animations ported into the game without adjustment. Kena's movement just doesn't look right in the world that she is flitting, jumping, and swimming through. When everything else like the story, character design, and the game world is so bespoke and detailed, the way Kena controls and is animated doesn't feel right, at all. I imagine this is because of budget limitations, and I feel for the tiny team on this one, but something feels like it's missing.

And yet, and this is a first in my years of playing games, the gameplay succeeds in spite of this fundamental flaw. There are three core aspects of the moment-to-moment that have been previously mentioned: traversal, combat, and puzzles. Let's start with combat, which makes the most out of a simple toolset. It is predominantly played with two buttons for attacks — light and heavy, naturally — with a dodge and a spirit shield that also acts as your parry. Mixed in are special attacks powered up by the Rot, archery, and the later equipment unlocks. It is simple, but mostly effective. In short, it works because of the enemy design, which is simply outstanding. There's diversity, interesting attack patterns, and the designs are cool as hell. The bosses are a standout, particularly on harder difficulties. Each one is unique, with no repeats of attacks or general aesthetics. An early one is like a giant wicker wolf with a small bell that you have to hit to recharge your special abilities. Another is made from rock, so you have to blast away the stone, aim at sweet spots, and reveal a weak wooden core. They are all amazing, balanced, and provide a substantial challenge.

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I started on the hardest difficulty and was surprised that it was taking about 30 minutes to beat certain bosses. At one point, I had to drop the difficulty so I could finish the review in time, but I look forward to upping the difficulty again on a second playthrough. But, what is super weird is that the enemies have more variety than Kena has. You are given a small box of tools, and that is your lot. That works for the most part, but when it doesn't feel right to run, jump, and dodge, the quantity of 'good feeling stuff' drops substantially. With a few extra animations, a greater variety in Kena's basic attacks, and a better implementation of the jump, it would be close to perfect. Also, I couldn't figure out the parry. There is little visual feedback suggesting when to do so or tactile feedback in the controller aside from when shooting arrows. And yet, it all somehow works! Feeling aside, the systems are all understandable and gratifying, with variety in approach. You want to fight these bosses and finally get that last hit in after working out a good plan of attack, but I just wish Ember Lab had nailed the last few niggling issues to make it exceptional.

Platforming is inventive and truly fun. You have to figure things out on the fly to jump your way over seemingly unassailable pathways. The design of the world is aesthetically bounteous, and you'll just want to see what architectural curios you might wander into. Presented with such inviting environments, you simply cannot help but be curious and keep pushing Kena forward. Platforming becomes an exercise in solid, purposeful exploration that ties your motivation with that of Kena's perfectly. However, when the traversal is marred by that weird, floaty feeling, it's hard to say it is perfect, even though literally everything around Kena is really well designed. The puzzles do serve their purpose perfectly, though, with some challenging moments, but mostly satisfying, solid brain food. A combination of using the Rot, some of your tools, and moving objects around to clamber up walls, requires you to be thinking at all times and is done with a confidence not befitting such a young studio. It's honestly bizarre how good Ember Lab is at the core gameplay loop, while the studio with a foundation in animation struggles to nail player character movement — the one thing you'd expect to fall firmly in its wheelhouse.

kena BRIDGE OF SPIRITS REVIEW

There are a few other small niggling issues. Characters sometimes just pop into existence, like the Rot and your spirit companions. I think this is actually a stylistic choice — because they are spirits and unbound by normal rules — but it frequently looks like a glitch or pop-in. The game hard-crashed twice for no discernable reason, though I didn't lose progress. It seems like some reviewers have, though, so keep an eye out. The last of these smaller niggles were three major signposting issues where I just had no idea what to do. Platforms were slightly hidden, or progress required the use of a gameplay mechanic that wasn't immediately obvious, resulting in a bit of confusion. Otherwise, this game runs as smooth as the rivers of this wonderful forest, and never fails to impress with a fun detail or an enjoyable new chunk of the world to explore.

The trophies are a mixed bag. Most of them are tied to easy collectable stuff, requiring you to explore the world to its fullest just like a trophy list should make you do. None of these are missable and this isn't a Ubisoft-style overload — it is just right and most of the objects you pick up have significant contextual meaning. For example, you can collect hats for your Rot, which is just as dope as it sounds. There are combat-related trophies that might be missable, mind. There are a limited number of combat scenarios in the game and some of the trophy objectives are specific to certain rare enemies. That means you could end up missing one and having to do it on a second run. That second run will be required anyway because you have to beat the game to unlock Master difficulty. This game is pretty tricky on Hard anyway, so I wouldn't want to be doing those challenges on Master. That being said, I can't wait to do another run!

kena BRIDGE OF SPIRITS REVIEW


Summary

Kena: Bridge of Spirits somehow overcomes its slightly rocky gameplay foundation with a superb story and characters that moved me deeply by the time the credits rolled around. The art direction is just wonderful, with the forest village — with its deep woods, mountains, fields, and rivers — feeling bounteous and strangely tangible for such a stylised world. Less than halfway through my time with the game, I knew I was in love with what Ember Lab had created. Despite flaws in the feel of the game, the combat is a stellar challenge with amazing bosses, the platforming is a solid offering of moreish exploration, and the puzzles help tie everything together in a neat bow. If this is Ember Lab's first game, then I am scared about how incredible the next effort could be. My heart wants to score it higher, but those fundamental issues are just objectivley too big to overlook. That being said, this is a great game — hence the number below — and certainly one of my favourites of the year so far. There is a high chance it will be one of yours, too. Kena, the Rot, and the forests will live long in the memory and will keep spirits satiated!
8 / 10
* Kes spent 14 hours in Kena on PS5 — mostly choosing hats for Kena's Rot companions — and unlocked 30 of the game's 42 trophies. A review copy was provided by Ember Lab.
Kes Eylers-Stephenson
Written by Kes Eylers-Stephenson
Associate Editor Kes is our resident expert in PlayStation news. He writes about upcoming exclusives like The Last of Us and God of War, PS Plus and PS Studios news, and his favourite games — The Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed, and The Outer Wilds — before an evening swim.