- Developer: Ember Lab
- Publisher: Ember Lab
- Release date: 20/9/2021
- Price: £32.99 / $39.99
Introducing: Kena: Bridge of Spirits Review
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is perhaps one of the games that I was most excited to get a chance to play after first seeing it in the PlayStation 5 presentation last year. Not only did it look utterly adorable, but it seemed like a big leap for a studio to take when crafting their first game. In my view, it took a lot of confidence for them to come out the gate with that, so I was curious as to exactly how well the game would play as well as if it would look as good as the trailers seemed to promise. One big delay and some relative quiet later, Kena is finally out, so let’s see what Ember Labs has to offer us in their first outing.
Spirits of the Forest
Kena is a young spirit guide, a sort of wayfarer who aids troubled spirits in passing on to the afterlife if there is a reason that has gotten them stuck and unable to move on. In travelling towards an ancient mountain shrine, she finds herself coming across a very powerful and very angry spirit deep in the forest. She is unable to dispatch it, but follows its trail to a village that is long overgrown and abandoned. From there, she embarks on figuring out her way to the shrine, which may require her to take a few side paths along the way.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is short, quite short. After the introduction, you help 2 spirits to move on in a pair of short story arcs before moving on to doing the same for the final boss. For some reason, I found myself feeling like there should have been three or four of the shorter ones before the final adventure, not only because good things come in threes, but because it may have helped the world of the village feel a little more complete. As it stands, we only get two perspectives of the people who once lived there, making the world feel somewhat shallow. Both of these spirits came to their deaths in part because of the same event happening elsewhere, I think having one or two more of these sorts of stories could have sold us on the impact of this event a little more. It’s not to say that I don’t like what is there, just that I think the game would have felt more rounded if there was more. As it stands, these don’t really feel like the episodic stories the game intends them to be, but more like a pair of lengthy side quests before you get back to what you were doing at the start.
Our Intrepid Guide
Kena is perhaps the weakest part of the game. There’s nothing wrong with her at all, just that she’s a little on the plain side. I like her a lot! She’s sweet and adorable and kind, just what you would want out of the main character of this sort of kid-friendly adventure game, but what she really lacks is a personal connection to the events of the plot. You see, she is just a traveler passing through, someone who stumbled across this place and chose to help out because the local area was getting messed up because of the malignancy of the local angry spirits. If not for the path being blocked, she easily could have just strolled along to her destination without involving herself. This is something that I think easily could have been solved simply by making this village somewhere that she was from or had lived in at some point in the past. Her father was a spirit guide as well, so it would be easy to work in that she travelled and stayed here with him for some time. I think a personal connection to the location could have given a lot more for her character to play with. Once again, it’s one of those things that isn’t outright bad, just underdeveloped.
I’m going to get into a little spoiler here, so feel free to skip the rest of this section if you would like to avoid that. Deep into the game, the final spirit that you have to face has this speech about how he knows why Kena is really here, how Kena is a selfish person, never should have come, and doesn’t care about the spirits she is helping and is only doing so for her own personal gain. This was as a shock to me as to this point, Kena had never seemed to be anything but an empathetic and kind person. We’re thrown into a bit of flashback/dream where Kena speaks to her younger self before we learn the truth… That Kena just really misses her dad and wants to make him proud of her. And I was confused, because that didn’t seem like anything selfish, more just a motivation for why she took on her current job. It’s an odd thing to call her selfish for. I kept waiting for her to have some secret darkness that just never came out. It feels like a really strange moment that’s put in there just so that our main character can have a low point and not because there is any real reason for it.
Combat isn’t too complicated. You have your light attack, heavy attack, block, dodge, and parry. All the standard tools of the trade, really. As the game goes along, you pick up a bow and arrow ability, bomb ability, and rush ability, each of these able to be enhanced with the help of the little rot creatures you collect along the way, so long as you have gotten the necessary part of the upgrade tree unlocked as well. It’s not the most complicated thing in the world, but for a game of this size, I don’t expect it to be the most intricate thing in the world.
I actually have a lot of fun with the combat of Kena, especially once you have more tools to play with, but holy hell, the difficulty spikes are some pretty big spikes. Simple enemies can go down easily with just a handful of hits, easily handled through some quick button spam to knock out a combo. Maybe you’ll have to do a heavy attack to get rid of a shield, but they are literally canon fodder for how simple it is to deal with them. Then you’ll suddenly be facing a boss or a mini-boss and they’ll be able to take out half you health with a single hit while nothing that you do does more than little chips of health. It was baffling to me. For something that seems that it is aiming for a family audience, even more so, as I could see this being frustrating for a kid who was playing the game for the first time. I don’t mind games getting a little tricky, but going from enemies that do barely any damage directly to one that takes you out in two or three shots can be whiplash. I fiddled with the difficulty settings a little and I almost feel like there should be a step between easy and normal, as easy feels too easy by every metric, while normal has those rampant spikes in difficulty that can be frustrating to those who do not feel ready for them yet but don’t feel like having them stop their progress for more than a handful of attempts.
A Few Flaws
Kena is Ember Lab’s first game and I think that there are a lot of ways that that really shows. A lot of what is good about this title are things that are picked up from other games in the genre, leading to this feeling that I have seen a lot of what is going on here before. That’s not to say that it’s doing things badly, but more that it is keeping at the standard, which is kind of what I would expect when trying things out for the first time. There’s just not anything that’s exceptionally new here, is all. There’s just also parts of it that feel a little choppy in comparison to other games of it’s kind. For example, transitions to cutscenes have a full cut to black every time, which I will admit does give it a little bit of a throwback feel but it also makes it feel like the cutscenes and the gameplay are very separated, like they were made by different teams and then put together in the game.
That being said, if this is a first effort, it’s an outstanding first effort! I’m looking forward to what else this team might be able to put together with this game under their belt and perhaps a little more confidence to branch out and try something new in their next title.
Ember Lab started life as an animation team and it really shows when it comes to the art direction that we have here. In fact, you may remember the Majora’s Mask short that they made a handful of years ago. The art here has actually a lot of similarity to that short in terms of design, though I think the slightly more cheery tone of the majority of Kena has kept it from some of the harsher shadows that you can see in their prior work. No matter what, though, this game is absolutely beautiful, no buts about it! The world is rich in detail and beautifully designed. The characters can seem a little odd at times but each of them actually works pretty well once you’re used to them. Perhaps the lighting is my favorite part. There’s so much use to glowing stones that I really loved. Animations are as smooth and fluid as I would expect from an animation team and the cutscenes and just… wow! It’s astounding what they’ve managed to put together for this mid range title.
The sound wows just as much. The sound effects are just perfect for whatever is going on and the voice acting is pretty good too, embodying just the right amount of light-hearted charm that is needed for the tone this game has. However, don’t think these actors can’t do dramatic because they are ready to pull that out when it really counts to sell the scene. However, the stand out for me is the music. It’s just the right level of engaging without being distracting. Full of wooden chimes and lilting notes, it’s a set of tunes that are going right onto my writing playlist as soon as I can. It really gives me the same feeling as some of my favorite Ghibli movies. Dramatic at all the right moments but with calming vibes for the rest of the time.
I never personally encountered any bugs with the game, however, I have been witness to another player falling through the world once. Otherwise, everything ran perfectly smoothly with little to no load times during my time spent reviewing Kena: Bridge of Spirits. It’s well put together through and through.
DualSense integration is there, but not so much as one of Sony’s first party titles may have. It’s mostly found in the haptics, all of which feel wonderful. There’s a wonderful ‘woosh’iness to the rumbles that’s kind of hard to put into words but feels great in practice. Do I think you’re going to lose a lot in that department if you end up playing on Playstation 4? No, but I think that if you have access to a Playstation 5, it certainly doesn’t hurt to get that extra feedback.
Waiting for More
I had a lot of fun in the time that I spent with Kena. It’s not a perfect game, but as a game moderately priced which can be run through in a weekend or just a few nights, I think that it’s worth giving a play. There are cracks here where it can really show that this is the first effort by a fairly new team. That being said, I find myself looking forward to what Ember Lab will be getting up to in the future as they are able to expand into larger projects. I’m personally going to be keeping a close eye on them if this is what their first outing is capable of looking like.
- Gorgeous visuals and sound design
- Likable characters
- Engaging gameplay
- Put hats on your little Rot companions
- A bit on the short side, feeling slightly incomplete
- Difficulty spikes can catch you off guard