Kena: Bridge of Spirits Review

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After numerous delays since its announcement in June 2020, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is finally here. You can be forgiven for looking at it and thinking it is reminiscent of a Pixar movie. That’s because the developers and publishers, Ember Lab started life as an animation studio. You may recall a fan film based on The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask called Terrible Fate? That was Ember Lab, and Kena: Bridge of Spirits is their first game.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits – The Path of a Spirit Guide is a Lonely One

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a game developed and published by Ember Lab and was released as a timed console exclusive on the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC on September 21st, 2021. If you bought the PlayStation 4 version, then you will also be entitled to a free upgrade to PlayStation 5 version. So far this is a digital-only release, with a physical release set for November 2021.

Kena
Kena…is that you?

To fully appreciate the jaw-dropping visuals on this game, it is best played on the PlayStation 5 which is what I did for this review. If you enjoyed this review, you can check out all my others here. So, let’s see how Ember Lap got on with their first game.

Gameplay

Our protagonist Kena is a spirit guide whose task is to help spirits with unfinished business that are trapped between the physical world and spirit world to move on. As you play as Kena, you seek the Mountain Shrine. The reason being as her father said is that it is full of spirit energy and will help her become a better spirit guide. You travel to an abandoned village where this once-thriving location is now just an echo of the past and a mysterious corruption is everywhere.

You run into two brothers and this is where your journey begins. Their older brother Taro is a restless spirit and needs help to move on. You will discover his memories and through his spirit mask, you will need to free him from the corruption before you can gain access to the Mountain Shrine. I found this particularly touching as it highlights the fear of letting go or moving on. There is more to the story, but you will have to play it to find out for yourself.

Kena
Arriving at the abandoned village

You are not alone on your journey though. You will discover these cute little critters known as the Rot. A rather unfitting name considering how absolutely adorable they are. These little guys will help you in a number of ways throughout the game. They can be a helpful aide in combat by adding an extra boost to your attack powers such as the Rot Hammer or binding your enemy giving you an opportunity to strike without them striking back. They are also quite cleverly used in environmental puzzle-solving to open up new areas.

Your one and only weapon is your spirit staff. This is used for both offence and defence. You have your usual light and heavy attacks and as you play through the game, there are upgraded variations of these. You will use it to block and parry as well. It does have an energy meter which depletes with each strike your shield takes. The parry is annoyingly difficult to execute though. I found it worked best in situations involving projectiles rather than a fight involving melee attacks. Being able to return a Mage’s bomb for it to explode in their face can be quite the boon. I found the best course of defence was just to dodge out of the way. The enemy’s attacks come so quick that sometimes it’s best to move out the way and set yourself up for a counterattack.

Don’t be fooled by this game’s charming exterior, for it harbours a world of pain. Even playing on normal difficulty I had some trouble with bosses. The battles can get a little tiresome at times, but you will be too busy gawking at the visuals to even care.

Kena
Corrupt Taro comin’ in hot!

Later you will be able to use your staff as a bow which is handy for aerial enemies and world traversal. You will also have access to bombs which you will need to open pathways and defeat certain enemies. All of these are upgradable, though the upgrade paths are fairly limited.

Aside from the masks (I’m looking at you Majora’s Mask), there is further evidence that inspiration is taken from The Legend of Zelda series. There are lots of things to discover and areas to explore and it is a visual treat in doing so. This is how you will acquire most of your Rots as well. You will find them under logs and stones, on lily pads, and upon completing archery challenges as well as other things.

There are plenty of charming little hats and masks to collect for your Rots and you will want to have them all. They don’t actually do anything, they’re just cosmetic but they just make the cute even cuter. These little guys following you around wearing their little cowboy or mushroom hats is ace! Once you find one, it is then unlocked at the market stall. During your exploration, you will find spirit crystals which are your currency. Head to the market stall to then buy the hats and equip them on your little companions.

Kena
Just look at these little guys. LOOK AT THEM!!

On top of that, you will find cursed chests where you will have to fight a bunch of enemies to access the goodies inside. Lastly, you will find spirit mail which will need to be delivered in order to help the spirits pass on to the afterlife. You will be rewarded with access to a new area with more goodies. Scattered around are meditation spots to permanently increase Kena’s life gauge.

Exploration and platforming sometimes have a bit of an Uncharted feel to them. This isn’t a bad thing. Half the fun of exploration is getting excited about what’s around the corner. Quite often I just found myself sitting there in awe, just admiring the scenery. Combat is super fun and challenging, but also very rewarding when you put all your skills together. Sure, there is little in terms of innovation here, it’s all been done before. But that doesn’t take away from what a joyful game this is.

It’s no Zelda-killer…yet. With some work, this could certainly run in the same circles.  The story is sound and non-complex, but I do have one tiny gripe. I wish I knew more about Kena herself. It’s such a heartfelt story, I just wish I knew what made her tick. All in all, a fantastic game with well-balanced combat and platforming. Was it worth delaying the release? 100% yes, it was.

Graphics and Audio

Opening up the options from the game’s menu, you have two graphics modes. Performance mode runs at 60 frames per second with upscaled 4K resolution. Fidelity mode is locked at 30 frames per second in native 4K. Performance mode does offer a noticeably richer visual experience with colours a touch more vibrant and looking a little less washed out compared to fidelity mode.

Kena
Performance mode

Kena
Fidelity mode

Remember earlier when I said that this game could be mistaken for a Pixar animation? Well, Ember Lab teamed up with Vietnam-based animation studio, Sparx. They too started out in screen animation with some of their notable movies including Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Avengers: Infinity War. And just like Ember Lab, they have recently started work in the games industry helping out on games like Detroit: Become Human, Borderlands 3, and the Demon’s Souls Remake.

You can see the impact the studio had on the game, with the game world inspired by Eastern locations. Even down to the game’s symbolism and Kena having an Asian appearance herself. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a wonderful representation of what the PlayStation 5 is capable of in its early days. Sometimes it is even more beautiful to look at than it is to play. There was the odd graphical hitch here and there, but nothing to disconnect you from the overall experience. You could play this just for the graphics and animation alone. Cutscenes are very well crafted and the gameplay is seamless with its transitions between light and shadows.

There is also a photo mode that is quite dynamic. There are various filters and camera settings to play around with. Of course, you can have a traditional still photo, but you can also have Kena pose in a variety of ways. On top of that, you can have all your Rot friends jumping all around you in real-time like the photo I took for the featured image at the top of this review.

Kena
Corrupt Taro doesn’t realise I am trying to help him

The audio department is a bit of a family affair. Balinese group Gamelan Çudamani is responsible for the original score, with the group founder’s daughter voicing Kena. The music is orchestrated well with authentic Balinese instruments. The tone of the music is very deliberate in its mood when moving from a bright open area to where there are corrupted parts. Along with the vibe of the game, the music is very spiritual in nature and lends itself extremely well. For what voice acting there was, I could not fault it. The restless spirits have a distinct, almost demonic voice which I can only liken to the Shredder from the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

A lot of thought and effort has been put into how this looks, sounds, and feels, and it really does show!

Longevity

Kena: Bridge of Spirits can be finished in a weekend, taking between 9-10 hours if you aren’t making a conscious effort to go and find more Rots and collectables. Of course, this depends on your difficulty settings (of which there are three) and level of ability. Another few hours can be found by mopping up all the collectables. Once you complete the game you then unlock the Master Spirit Guide difficulty. If you choose to do this it will be a brand new playthrough with no upgrades. Completing the game on this difficulty is a requirement for that shiny Platinum Trophy.

There is no mention of DLC as far as I am aware, but I do have hope for a sequel of sorts.

Final Thoughts

In short, this is a fantastic first game from Ember Lab and it shows that you don’t have to break new ground to produce a stellar game. It was 100% worth the wait. While the game may be a little short for my liking, it overachieves in every department. The characters are likeable, even the bad guys because they don’t know they’re bad. The Rots for me are just the most awesome companions, and if they don’t get a merchandising deal I would be very surprised because I want a cuddly little Rot for Christmas…and I don’t even like Christmas. And, I want interchangeable hats as well!

Kena
Cuteness overload!!!

Combat is great, exploration is exciting, Rots are cute, the world is beautiful, the music is perfect. Buy it now, and again in November when it is released on disc.

I award Kena: Bridge of Spirits a very high-spirited Thumb Culture Platinum Award.

Disclaimer: A code was received in order to write this review.

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