Although it is only the first game from its development team, Kena: Bridge of Spirits comes with a level of hype and expectation that is normally reserved for AAA blockbusters.
Up until now, animation-house-turned-game-studio Ember Lab was best known for its work in CG commercials. They have previously collaborated with brands like Coca Cola, Major League Baseball (MLB) and Hisense, to produce visually impressive shorts that are on par with the cinematic releases of DreamWorks or Illumination.
Yet, while they have certainly mastered their craft in animated productions, Kena represents the company’s first-ever foray into the world of video games. And what an ambitious debut it is!
As a timed PlayStation exclusive, this is meant to be a “system seller” for the console line, complete with next-gen graphics, refined gameplay, and an expansive world for players to traverse – which is quite a tall order for a team that is still learning the ropes of this particular industry.
Even though the trailers for Kena have given us no cause for concern, we can all remember past instances of small studios biting off more than they can chew. For instance, Hello Games has only just started to rehabilitate its image, after nearly 5 years of updating No Man’s Sky to get it to resemble what was originally advertised.
Over the past couple of months, many have started to worry that Kena will be the next game to follow in this pattern – serving as yet another example of an indie developer getting elevated to the big leagues too early, only to buckle under the pressure.
After all, there has been a worrying lack of media coverage for the game in the lead up to its release and Sony has been conspicuously quiet on the marketing front as well. You might reasonably infer from this that Ember Lab – who are self-publishing here – does not have a lot of confidence in their own product.
However, while Kena: Bridge of Spirits is admittedly a little rough around the edges, it is still a very charming adventure that more than justifies its $40 price tag.
A Mystical Adventure
Set in a fantasy world that blends aspects of Japanese and Balinese culture, the game casts you in the titular role of Kena, a spirit guide who is making a pilgrimage to a distant shrine in the mountains. Partway through her journey, she stops by at a deserted village to investigate a supernatural corruption that is afflicting the surrounding area. Here, she discovers that malevolent ghosts are prowling the roads and that a destructive force is slowly consuming the nearby forest.
Recognizing that only a spirit guide like herself can put an end to the chaos, Kena decides that she must identify the root of this sickness and find a way to heal it. To do so, she embarks on a quest to locate the residents of the village and help them resolve any unfinished business so that they can cross over to the other side.
In gameplay terms, this translates to you scouring each region of the forest for key items (known as “relics”) that have a unique significance to the aggrieved spectres. Finding them will entail a combination of Uncharted-esque platforming, environmental puzzle-solving and the odd bit of combat. Once you have enough relics in your possession, you will then be able to challenge one of the corrupted spirits to a duel, so that you can finally relieve them of their pain.
Taking Inspiration From the Best
Much like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Kena liberally borrows ideas from a variety of different sources. For example, during fights the camera position and control scheme instantly recalls 2018’s God of War. Elsewhere, the archery is lifted almost identically from Breath of the Wild (time dilates when you draw the bow mid-air) and many of the boss fights have direct analogues in the Dark Souls franchise. There are even a few similarities with Enslaved: Odyssey to the West in terms of both the visual design and traversal mechanics.
Yet while there are a lot of familiar elements, Ember Lab gets most of it right. The combat is simple, but effective, with Kena’s magical staff (which she mainly uses as a blunt clubbing instrument) being incredibly satisfying to wield. In reality, you will just be hammering the heavy and light attack buttons for the most part, but it looks fluid and feels responsive enough for you to get drawn in.
Over time, you will unlock additional abilities too – like the aforementioned spirit bow, a forcefield power, a throwable energy bomb and a dash move – all of which can be upgraded through a dedicated skill tree. There’s nothing revolutionary about any of this, but the fights remain engaging thanks to the pleasing enemy variety and the gradual drip-feed of new mechanics.
The boss encounters are a particular highlight, with the late-game opponents proving to be surprisingly challenging and memorable. You will have to learn their attack patterns, identify any weaknesses, perfectly time your dodges, and strategically judge how many hits you can sneak in without getting too greedy. They are formidable, and even a little irritating at times, but there’s a genuine sense of accomplishment whenever you manage to fell a corrupted spirit.
There are also a number of “cursed chests” scattered around the environment that you can try to unlock by completing bonus trials. These optional challenges task you with doing things like surviving a wave of enemies without taking a single hit or clearing out an infested area within a given time limit. Again, they are pitched at just the right level of difficultly, feeling tough without every crossing the line into being unfair.
Recruiting An Adorable Entourage
Speaking of extra content, there is plenty for you to uncover in the world of Kena outside of the (compelling) main story. Unsent mail can be delivered to abandoned houses – granting you access to areas that would otherwise be missed – there are secret passageways and caves to explore, and you will even have the chance to pick up a few cosmetic items in your travels.
However, the most addictive side activity is hunting for new “Rot”. Basically the mascots for the game, these adorable, big-eyed critters serve as both collectables and companions in Kena’s journey. You can rescue them by winning archery side-quests or by just searching in hidden places around the environment (like under logs, beneath frying pans, or within pumpkins).
Once they have been adopted into your care, the Rot will lend you a hand in combat, help you solve puzzles and purge corruption from previously inaccessible areas of the forest. In addition to this, when they are not making themselves useful, they will just hang around in the background being indescribably sweet.
Often, you will turn a corner to see them lounging around in kitchen cabinets or sliding down bags of flour. They will even hitch a ride atop Kena’s head when she goes for a swim and it’s so precious that you will find yourself automatically hammering the screenshot button on your DualSense controller.
Trying to acquire all 100 of these tiny creatures is supremely addictive, as is finding the various hats that you can dress them in. No matter how hard you try to resist their calculated cuteness, you will end up getting attached to them.
Gorgeous Visuals and Entrancing Music
Of course, this extends to all of the characters in Kena, as they are universally likeable and easy to relate to. Every character model is remarkably expressive (it is worth rotating the camera at random intervals, just to see all the different facial expressions that have been programmed for your avatar), the voice actors do a stellar job in bringing them to life, and their backstories are all intriguing.
Not to mention, the game has a phenomenally rousing soundtrack that just gets you immediately invested into the various relationships and interpersonal dramas here. Tapping into the game’s pan-Asian setting, this music might honestly be the best part of the whole experience. There’s a haunting central motif, atmospheric background tracks, and a percussive combat loop that gets the heart racing.
As you would expect from a team that got their start in movie-grade animation, Bridge of Spirits looks absolutely stunning on the PS5, especially in the pre-rendered cutscenes. You are going to want to exploit its photo mode feature, so that you can capture all of the spectacular vistas, beautiful environments, striking lighting effects, and believable character animations. While it is clearly not aiming for a realistic aesthetic – and instead resembles a stylized Pixar movie – it is easily one of the best-looking games of this console generation.
A Little Rough Around the Edges
Or at least, that is the case for the most part. Yet there are a few places where the standards appear to have slipped, presumably for the sake of meeting the already postponed release date. While some areas are richly detailed, other textures look curiously half-finished and there are a handful of animations that are just a bit clunky.
For instance, when Kena is climbing up mountains it feels awkwardly disjointed, like there is an imperceptible jolt between her jumping and then clinging onto ledges. Likewise, the animation for you coming to a complete halt after sprinting is unnaturally abrupt and the Rot do not seem to have proper collision detection with the environment. As such, if there is not enough space for your entourage to fit into a certain gap, then they will simply phase through walls or float in mid-air.
In general, it feels like Kena could have used more time in the oven. Trying to run it in anything other than performance mode causes the frame rate to dip to near unplayable levels and it is a shame to report that we did encounter our fair share of bugs as well.
Luckily, none of these hiccups were ever game breaking, other than one instance of a puzzle solution not activating on cue. Even then, this was easily resolved by quitting to the main menu and then starting over again. Given that the checkpoints are rather generously distributed here, this was not too much of an inconvenience but it is worth pointing out.
Hopefully these assorted kinks will be ironed out post-launch via updates and patches. Granted, this is Ember Lab’s first game (and it did not have the resources of a fully-fledged AAA production) so some of these issues can be overlooked, but they do slightly mar what is otherwise a very good debut.
Overall, Kena: Bridge of Spirits manages to overcome its technical flaws through delightful animation, solid gameplay, appealing characters and terrific music. Whether or not it is the killer-app PlayStation fans are hoping for will depend on how much you expect from a $40 product, but there is plenty to be enchanted by here.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is available now for PS4, PS5 and PC. A PS5 review code was provided by the publisher.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits (8/10)
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is not without its technical faults, but is so innately likeable and charming that you will be able to look past them.
The post ‘Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ Review: Visually Stunning and Overflowing With Charm appeared first on Newsweek.