Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the push I needed to buy a PlayStation 5 (if I can ever get my hands on one).
The graphics are gorgeous, the characters are enchanting in every sense of the word, the story is intriguing, and the game itself is an enjoyable journey I want to revisit again and again.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a brand new debut game from Ember Labs, available on PS4/PS5 and Epic Games for PC. The following review is based on my PC experience thanks to a review copy received from Ember Labs, however, as noted earlier I am very eager to buy a PS5 and play the game again. PS and Epic have exclusive rights for the moment, so if you are hanging out for Steam or another console, you may be waiting for a little while.
Who Is Kena?
Kena (pronounced Keh-nah) is a young spirit guide who is looking for the Sacred Mountain Shrine. To be absolutely honest, we don’t know much about Kena beyond her magical abilities as a spirit guide, her attunement with the Rot, and somehow her father was a spirit guide too. But we learn a lot about Kena from the first 20-minutes of dialogue and gameplay. Kena pretty much sets the vibe for the rest of the game: she is determined, caring, and gentle. She is polite and considerate. And she has a wicked backswing with her magical staff.
As a spirit guide, Kena’s role is to help spirits who are unable to move on to wherever they go after death. This is the core element of the game’s story, and it rests heavily on Kena’s character features. The game starts with Kena meeting an angry spirit with unfinished business and lingering pain. It’s a powerful opening, leading Kena to a beautiful village surrounded by toxic growth and poison. Kena’s search for the Sacred Mountain Shrine is interlaced with her duty to help various spirits along the way, each with their role in the story.
Who Is the Rot?
Okay, Kena is the protagonist, but the Rot is stealing the show. They are little spirit creatures, akin to Studio Ghibli’s soot sprites. The more Rot Kena collects, the more their power grows and can help across the game. However, do not be mistaken into thinking this is a little spirit-army in the making. This is all about the relationship Kena has with the Rot: she doesn’t command or order. Kena asks politely and guides. She works with the Rot and interacts with them as a team. You can even pause in the game to sit down and play with the Rot! It’s this whole connection between Kena and the Rot which really brings out the true nature of the game.
The Rot also has the opportunity for some individual character. They dance, sing, mumble in this really cute way, and can wear a variety of hats and accessories. That’s right, Kena can purchase cute little cowboy hats and red bowties for the Rot to wear. BTW: there is the merchandise you can buy in real life and, I swear, I want lots of Rot plushies. For me. Not my kids. Just me. You can visit the Rusu Shop here.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits Is a Visual Journey of Joy
For a debut game, Kena is beautiful and smooth and filled with amazing details. Much of this is thanks to indie developer Ember Lab and their animation experience. If the name sounds familiar, Ember Lab is the same team responsible for the fan film Majora’s Mask: Terrible Fate (view it here).
The game is filled with sweeping vistas and intricate details, allowing for many moments to pan your camera and appreciate the full view gifted to you. For me, the ultimate achievement is the genuine feature for each character, especially Kena. There is detail in every facial expression, with every line of dialogue. Some characters are filled with comic relief and well-timed for it too. But it is the graphic detail in Kena’s expressions that make her so endearing. Amazing landscapes and balanced shadows are awesome, but give me a character who looks like they care? That’s a winner.
For those who take their gaming photography seriously, Kena also features an in-game camera for taking advantage of the amazing graphics. Best of all, you can incorporate various characters and the Rot with your photos, encouraging them to say “Cheese!” and strike a pose! To be fair, gaming photography isn’t explored enough and I really hope this tempts more gamers to do it.
Making Something Old New Again
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an action/adventure/narrative with elements of puzzles to solve along the way. Kena is the only character you play in the game, with managed support from the Rot and all through 3rd person. The controls are similar to other games in the genre and easy to pick up and add to along the way. Exploring is assisted by the Rot who help move items to unlock hidden features. Combat features basic and charged attacks, with an energy shield and a dodge movement for defense. As the game progresses, Kena picks up additional skills like bombs and evolving her staff into a bow.
The overall story is made up of multiple smaller arcs, like missions or quests. Each section is based on a spirit that needs guidance (whether or not they are fully aware of it). There are memories to find, secrets to learn, and pieces to collect in order to convince the spirit it is time to move. The battles can seem a little overwhelming at first, filled with distractions and melee attacks. However, like any classic adventure, all the parts are given to you before you hit the boss. Sometimes this can be a special item, such as Taro’s Spirit Mask—an item that gives you the ability to view the spirit world directly through the mask and see clues or hidden Rot (add the mask to my wishlist).
There is comfort in the moderate familiarity, the style of battle, the guidance through the world. However, there are stark differences that feel like a breath of fresh air. Indie games have a fine line to tread on the path to success. A game needs to have enough in common with other tropes and trends to attract players. However, developers must balance it with enough innovation and individuality to stand out and forge their own way through. Innovation brings risk, which can be hard to manage on tight budgets and timeframes. Fortunately, Ember Lab has embraced the risk and run with it. Their cinematic experience helps build the story visually while the developers have made sure there is a strong game to keep it going.
One of the key differences between Kena and other games in the genre is the use of the Rot. I mentioned before how they are part of Kena’s team. They also can play a significant role in battle. As you progress through the game and collect more Rot, you can unlock and evolve moves that help Kena in a variety of ways from healing to stunning enemies and merging as a single entity to destroy toxic blocks along the way. It adds an extra level to the battle scenes, as you constantly balance Kena’s skills with the Rot’s abilities against the boss and its group of soldiers.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits Is the Game of 2021
There is a lot to say about Kena’s relationship with the year 2021. Development started a long time before any of—*waves hand around*—happened, but the game has a strong healing and self-discovery vibe which is going to work well with many players. Gaming can be good for our health, and Kena is definitely a game to add to that list. For more on this topic, check out my previous article here.
The key role of Kena as a spirit guide is to help spirits heal and move on. Everything about her interaction is considerate and soothing. As she gathers the Rot and other spirits around her, you genuinely get the feeling of a warm embrace. The game is about the connection—between Kena and the spirit world, Kena and the Rot, the lost spirits and their lives, and us as players with our own world. To progress through the story, Kena needs to connect with the lost spirit, facing their past, and seeing the growth forward.
With so much emphasis on connection, I wish we had more of Kena’s backstory to connect with. Don’t get me wrong—Kena has depth and emotion, giving us a well-rounded character experience. However, we really don’t learn that much about her history or what brought her to the village or mountain in the first place. Did the developers leave room for DLC or a sequel? Is this a salute to Studio Ghibli’s style of leaving things a little open-ended? Who knows, but I am absolutely here for any future story developments.
From a family point of view, Kena is accessible to most ages. Story Mode is the most basic and makes the game easily accessible to someone like my 8-year-old to play (and me, because let’s be honest, I need more Story Mode in my life). There are two more levels that suit gamers interested in more complex battle strategies and tougher opponents. If you are really in a mood, Master Level will open up after your first completion. There are moments where you may explore off the beaten track and have trouble finding your way back to the main path. They can be a little frustrating for younger players—or you may need to call on your kids to help you out. If this happens, take your time and search around the area slowly. Essentially, the game suits the whole geek family, and now I have to share my computer with them.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a fantastic medium-level game as a debut from Ember Labs. As a whole, Kena: Bridge of Spirits can be completed in about 10-hours with straightforward play (though, you will probably want to explore more than that). You can purchase the Standard Edition for around USD$39.99 or the Deluxe Edition for USD$49.99, including the official soundtrack and additional in-game bonuses. Side-note: the music is amazing, filled with Balinese and Japanese influences. It’s a great background choice during our lockdown learning sessions at home.
Score: A solid 4.5 out of 5 Pumpkin Hats for my Rot friends.