Kena: Bridge of Spirits Review
Ever since it was first revealed earlier this year, Kena: Bridge of Spirits has become one of our most anticipated games for the PS5. Just a glance at any trailer and one would assume for it to be a AAA title due to its stunning visuals, all from a team that’s far from being a household name in the industry.
No stranger to animation projects, Kena is Ember Lab’s first foray into games, making it all the more impressive. Giving off strong Disney and Pixar vibes, Kena: Bridge of Spirits certainly looks like a winner.
You follow a spirit guide named Kena who, upon investigating a haunted forest, encounters an angry spirit hell-bent on staying undead. His presence and obsession with staying with his people have worsened the corruption in the land, poisoning its inhabitants. With the help of friendly spirits known as the Rot (who, ironically, are not rotten at all), Kena now moves towards exorcising this spirit to bring balance back to the land.
I have a soft spot for indies that punch above their weight class. When they stick the landing, they usually deliver a satisfying experience in both gameplay and narrative. Kena: Bridge of Spirits has already made a highly positive first impression, now all it has to do is finish strong.
A Symphony of Light and Sound
We’re no stranger to how Kena: Bridge of Spirits looks. The game has stunning vistas, inspired character and enemy designs, along with impressive animation. You can heap well-deserved praises on it, but one thing trailers do now show is how astounding the game is from an aural perspective.
Kena’s soundtrack, for lack of a better term, slaps. Did I use the term right, my fellow teens?
Created by Jason Gallaty and highlighted by performances from talented folk musicians of Gamelan Çudamani, the soundtrack of the game is utterly sublime. It isn’t afraid to show its Balinese influence which matches the look and feel to perfection. There’s just something about a mix of bamboo and strings that feel so meditative and spiritual, and its use in Kena: Bridge of Spirits reflects its themes so well.
Boss fights are made extra special by a sudden change in pace, adding in percussions combined with xylophones and gongs, dramatically heightening the tension. Every attack and parry feels more urgent, and the end result is truly spectacular.
With animation as its forte, Ember Lab is certainly no stranger to making things look and run well. Kena: Bridge of Spirits can easily school other veteran studios in this department, as it comes alive with vibrant colors and impressive lighting, starting from the minute you boot up the game.
Kena, Spirit Fighter
As you enter the forest and encounter the Rot for the first time, it becomes a particularly charming encounter with these friendly spirits turning into your tools for combat and exploration. By finding them in treasure chests and across various nooks throughout the land, the Rot not only serves as your companions but is also an integral part of battles.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits employs basic and familiar controls, with a couple of buttons for your light and heavy attacks, along with a dodge and parry that has unusually strict timing that could become a huge source of frustration.
By building up your Courage meter, you can employ Rot-based attacks that can distract the enemy, leaving them open for extra damage. Courage is also used to heal yourself through the limited healing flowers during battles, adding a layer of strategy that leaves you with a choice on whether to use the Rot actions defensively or offensively.
Kena gains a number of weapons that will help you not only in battle but also in opening up areas that were previously inaccessible. In this regard, Kena: Bridge of Spirits feels like a Zelda game, with a fair amount of backtracking needed to progress across the multiple areas in the game, each straddled with challenges that will test your wit and puzzle-platforming skills.
At times, Kena’s gameplay may feel too familiar, which could swing either way depending on your preference. There’s very little innovation, but sometimes familiar is also fine.
Spirits is the new Souls
Hiding behind its “family-friendly” exterior is a challenging game where suddenly, you’re wondering how you ended up in a FromSoftware scenario when the game looks like something out of Ratchet & Clank.
The jump in difficulty from normal mobs to the bosses is unusually huge. Normal enemies oftentimes do not offer any challenge at all, but bosses are on the opposite side of the spectrum, testing your skills from the first second of the encounter to the last.
This gap is exacerbated by some really uneven balance in difficulty levels, where easy is actually really easy and normal is wait wtf happened. Enemy aggro is spiked to the wazoo and damage is increased by such a huge margin that a few choice hits will send you to critical especially if you botch a parry attempt.
There’s no shame in lowering the difficulty, but it shouldn’t even be that way to start with.
Picks up a little too late
For a game that is not from [insert well-known studio here], Kena: Bridge of Spirits effortlessly leaps through some hurdles that many AAA games these days are finding difficult to overcome.
Objectively, the game looks and sounds fantastic, with a first act that’s satisfying to run through and experience. It’s not a cakewalk, but more of an actual challenge alongside the puzzles and traversal that require some semblance of effort, which Ember Labs have handled with such care.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits employs a lot of tried and tested mechanics, but sadly stumbles in some of the simplest aspects, which you can clearly chalk up to inexperience.
While many indies actually put a lot of effort into the presentation, Kena Bridge of Spirits has very flat and uninspired menus, a stark difference to how the overall visuals of the game are treated. The typeface is ridiculously generic and I just can’t help point out that while most of the effort went into the animation and the beautiful visuals, I always dread hitting the pause screen.
The map also feels a little flat and doesn’t exactly consider elevation and accuracy of paths, which becomes a bother once you enter the more labyrinthine forest locations and you’ll find yourself running around in circles searching for a specific waypoint marked on the map. Coupled with the fact that some puzzles range from straightforward to completely obtuse, finding your bearings will take a bit of time to get used to.
Finding the Rot scattered throughout the land will eventually unlock new skills, but apart from that benefit, the only other reward is purely for cosmetic purposes, leaving very little incentive to actually go out of your way to look for them. There are a lot of collectibles, but none of them really offer anything functional aside from currency used to purchase more cosmetics.
The biggest offender here is its shallow storyline, which does not connect the player to Kena as much. Despite being the main character, much of her story is relegated in the background, overshadowed by the spirits Kena is helping instead. We only receive Kena’s personal journey sparingly which is such a shame because her character is so charming and likable. The game is literally begging for another entry, but hopefully when that time comes, Kena is put into the spotlight that she deserves.
What We Liked:
- Excellent soundtrack that equal parts soothing and dreadful at the perfect times.
- Beautiful gameplay visuals on par with AAA games of its type.
- Final act boss fights leading to the final battle are some of the best in the game.
- Combat is simple but effective.
What We Didn’t Like:
- Presentation of menus feels amateurish.
- Parry has very strict timing that’s a big source of frustration.
- Rot reward system is largely cosmetic.
- Story is lacking, especially regarding the characterization of the titular character.
Verdict: Wait for it.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits makes a strong first impression with its beautiful visuals, engaging soundtrack, and decent combat that you’d mistake for a AAA title making its rounds. After a while though, the many little hiccups that I’ve experienced in the game wore me down, ending my journey with a whimper. Some of it may seem minor to most, even nitpicky all things considered, but was a very strong source of frustration for me.
From a visual and aural standpoint, Kena: Bridge of Spirits seems to have everything in order – it’s definitely a great showpiece for Ember Lab and there’s no denying the high production values for the game. Considering this effort is a first for the studio, the result is truly impressive.
Throughout my 10-hour playthrough, my feelings have been consistently mixed. There are some highs, there were many lows, and there were some really frustrating moments. Each piece of Rot is begging me to like the game but sadly, the story didn’t inspire intrigue, curiosity, or even relatability. Returnal had some frustrating moments, but there was this mystery I wanted to solve and this burning desire to want to know what happens next, but I sadly didn’t have that motivating me for Kena: Bridge of Spirits.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is now available for the PS4, PS5, and PC.
*Kena Bridge of Spirits was reviewed on a PS5 with a review code from the publishers.