With cinematic trailers showing off visuals that look as though they’ve been ripped from a Pixar film, I feel as though many of us forgot that Kena: Bridge of Spirits is, in fact, an indie title. Being the debut game for developer Ember Labs, this action platformer has received more hype and adoration than most first-time studios could possibly dream of, but that also results in higher expectations. For better and worse, Kena feels like a throwback to a bygone age of gaming with a few twists that help bring it into the current landscape. It might not be the system-seller that some were expecting, but that doesn’t stop it from being charming and fun.
As the game opens we’re introduced to Kena, a young spirit guide who’s travelled to a new land in search of a mountain shrine. As a spirit guide, it’s Kena’s responsibility to help souls cross over from the mortal plane into the spirit world. While approaching the mountain, she encounters a vile corruption that has spread across the beautiful landscape, tainting it and sullying its natural state. With souls in desperate need of aid, Kena sets out to rid the forest and its surrounding areas of corruption and set things right.
The stories behind each spirit are sad, but they ultimately tell a heartwarming tale
As I’ve alluded to, this game is unbelievably beautiful and very endearing. The various locations are filled with luscious, vibrant colours that impress no matter where on the screen your eyes fall. The character models are brimming with personality and the animations are smooth and impressive. Kena is an absolute visual treat in all aspects during gameplay, though the pre-rendered cutscenes, while also pretty, suffer from stuttering and lower framerate which is unfortunate. That really shouldn’t take away from just how stunning everything looks though, especially when playing on a PS5 with 4K resolution and targeted 60fps.
Not long into the game, you’ll encounter the Rot, adorable little woodland sprits that are so cute that they could make even the gruffest among us say aww. These doe-eyed critters join Kena as she cleanses the forest of its sickness by helping three corrupted spirits move on. To do this, Kena is required to find three relics left by the spirit before encountering them in a climactic boss fight to cleanse their souls and send them on their way. These three spirits all come with their own rather sombre stories of anguish and tragedy. You’ll uncover what drove them to become corrupted and grow to understand their ties to the mortal plane. There’s a core narrative thread that ties everything together, but these separate tales are more compelling and are genuinely quite heartbreaking.
The Rot can be used to move objects and interact with the world, so they’re cute and functional
As you travel around the world guide spirits, as spirit guides do, you’ll encounter various corrupted enemies that need a good whacking. To begin with, combat is comprised of a light and heavy attack, a dodge, a block and a parry, with other abilities such as a bow, a dash and bombs slowly introduced as you progress. Upgrades to combat skills can be purchased with XP, with some special attacks being locked until you gather enough of the Rot together to join you, who can be found around the world. Combat encounters are very, very basic to begin with, but in the latter stages of the game, I found that a decent amount of challenge was found. The odd boss fight can be frustrating, but weak points and ability-specific requirements make them engaging, for the most part, acting as a puzzle as much as a fight.
When you’re not smacking tree golems with a stick, you’ll be putting your platforming skills to the test. Similar to the combat, platforming around the world is initially quite straightforward, but as you gain abilities the difficulty ramps up. Using your bow and bombs to manipulate the environment is a neat way to inject a bit of puzzle-solving into the equation and, while it never stumped me, I did enjoy the light challenge. I wouldn’t say that platforming is tight, however. Kena has a double jump to help with larger gaps, but the mid-air leap robs you of all momentum and generally makes the action feel a bit sluggish. I also ran into that issue I thought had been forever cast to the depths of platforming Hell where you’re not able to make a jump despite Kena’s character model being all but on top of it, sliding off the side like it’s been buttered up instead. Worse yet, it seems as though Kena would go the way of the Sims without a pool ladder, as she isn’t able to climb out of a hole without the help of an incline. The complexity in the later stages helps immeasurably though, and the physics-based puzzling brought me around by the end.
The boss designs are outstanding and the fights themselves are very solid
In more ways than one, Kena feels like it would fit in swimmingly with PS2-era action platformers like Sly Cooper and Jak and Daxter. The old-school charm of cute characters making their way through a fantasy world pulls at my nostalgic heartstrings, but a number of irritations remind me that these are, in fact, better times. The tale is told almost exclusively through cut scenes, leaving the gameplay to be just that, strictly gameplay with very little environmental storytelling. As I said before, this is Ember Lab’s first game, so I don’t want to be too harsh, but it’s still worth pointing out.
I keep mentioning that the later stages of the game are where I enjoyed myself the most, and that’s for good reason. With all abilities unlocked and the challenge in combat kicked into another gear, Kena starts to pick up quite a bit of steam. By the time you wrap things up with the final spirit, you’ll need to use all of what you’ve learned to progress, both in terms of platforming and combat. This shows a great sense of progression, but it also goes a long way to highlight that the opening few hours are a bit dull in comparison. I greatly enjoyed my last hour with Kena, but that enjoyment made me realise just how slow the game is to get going in the first hour.
Why wouldn’t you want to roam the world and collect these little guys? Look at him!
For a first release, Kena is an absolute triumph for Embar Labs. It’s all but unseen for an indie developer to produce a game with production values anywhere near the heights that Kena reaches, with its stunning visuals, charming design and slick animations fooling many into thinking that it’s a AAA title. The gameplay may only come into its own in the back half of the game, but when everything eventually gets moving it makes for an enjoyable and endearing action platforming experience.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Ember Lab
- Ember Lab
- PS5 / PS4 / PC
- September 21, 2021