I didn’t know what to expect jumping into the world of Kena: Bridge of Sprits, but the excitement of not only a new IP and Studio, coupled with a distinctively animated aesthetic, made the game an easy choice in wanting to pursue.
Thankfully, Kena: Bridge of Spirits, for the most part, delivers an experience that is just as equally good to look at as it is fun to play. Starting with what for me was the weakest element in Kena, the narrative, which by no means is bad — however, the game seems to be targeting a younger audience, with many of the characters outside the titular Kena, feeling like they belong in an after — school special, which again lends itself well to the cartoon aesthetic of the game, but may fall short for older audiences, despite some of the more mature themes the title explores, such as death and loss.
The story frames Kena as a Medium and Spirit Guide who can help lost souls find their way, which, when set behind the backdrop of a dying world, overrun by what is essentially the personification of death and decay, makes for a bolder narrative than your typical kids game.
Gameplay involves exploring the world and purifying the dying and corrupt areas, such as the main village and hub location, found early in your adventure. Kena thankfully isn’t alone — Instead, she has her Rot companions, which in terms of design I found to be truly awful and uninspired, consisting of little bulbous bodies similar to the Adipose alien-race seen in Doctor Who, coloured black and given unfittingly Disney-esque eyes.
“Graphically, Kena: Bridge of Spirits excels on the PlayStation 5, particularly in its lighting and denser environmental detail such as foilage…”
Thankfully, from a mechanical standpoint, the Rot characters are better realized, as they act as directable minions for Kena, similar to the likes of Pikmin and 2005’s Tokobots (if anyone remembers that game) but significantly limited in their utility. Instead, the Rot, which can gradually increase in number, are primarily used to lift objects for light puzzle solving, daze enemies and purify corrupted areas. The bulk of gameplay in Kena: Bridge of Spirits lies in its combat, which, although simple, feels well polished and fun to play.
Kena starts the game with her staff, which with the L1 button can be used to create an energy pulse that can trigger environment-based geometry, such as patches of unbloomed flowers that heal the player, which is particularly useful during tougher enemy and mob encounters.
The L1 pulse doubles as Kena’s parry ability, which, when timed correctly, will stagger even the biggest of threats, giving the player plenty of time to dish some damage and turn the tides of battle. Normal attacks are tied to the R1 button, while R2 acts as a heavy charge-based bash. The attacks being mapped to the PlayStation 5’s Dualsense controller feels especially good and weighty, with each hit having the appropriate amount of tension and give, imbuing each encounter with an extra layer of immersion that is absent on other versions of the game.
Early on, Kena’s staff gains the ability to transform to a bow, which like the melee-based combat, feels somewhat simple but well implemented. The bow’s utility is not only limited to battles but many of the title’s environment-based puzzles, which require the player to shoot down far-reaching targets that act as pullies, switches and the like for Kena to traverse her world better.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits offers an upgrade system which allows the player to gradually upgrade Kena’s abilities for both her staff and bow — however, these upgrades, like everything else in the game, tend to be more nuanced and straightforward, such as having the ability to slow down time while aiming with the bow Ala the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Lite platforming fills out the rest of the game, similar to the climbing mechanics found in the Uncharted series, with climbable areas clearly distinguished by worn lines and similarly etched rune markings that make it straightforward enough for any age to discern and proceed forward. This works well with the various collectables, such as lost letters and additional Rot and cosmetic items the player can find in the game world.
Graphically, Kena: Bridge of Spirits excels on the PlayStation 5, particularly in its lighting and denser environmental detail such as foilage, which look fantastic, especially in transitional scenes between darker and lighter areas such as caves and forested terrains that pop and look borderline like a DreamWorks feature, sans some inconsistent character designs.
I would love to see Ember Labs take on Nickelodeon’s Avatar license, as Kena: Bridge of Spirits felt very much inspired by that Asian infused aesthetic. Performance in Bridge of Spirits is also equally impressive, with the game running at a mostly consistent 60fps throughout in its performance mode, with minor dips in heavy combat sequences and cutscenes, but nothing that breaks immersion or hampers gameplay significantly.
For their first videogame, Ember Labs have outdone themselves, creating what will hopefully be a bar that they can foreseeably vault over going forward, as Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a solid game that harkens back to titles of the sixth generation of games, with a coat of paint indicative of modern gaming that should appease younger players while offering enough gameplay variety for anyone to enjoy.