Released on the 21st of September 2021, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an action-adventure game with criminal amounts of cuteness and enough heart to win over any fence-sitters. As this review will reveal, although Ember Lab may be the new kids on the block as far as game development goes, with Kena: Bridge of Spirits they have managed to produce a polished project that stands confident and proud, showing very little signs of being a first attempt at making a game. Even if the game does not land at the top of your Game of the Year list, this is a title that will not fail to have you grinning for all the right reasons.
Ember Lab, Brewers of Magic
Ember Lab is a relatively small animation studio that has been around for a while and has a few projects under its belt to show off. Their interest in gaming is evident from one of their most successful animated short films titled Majora’s Mask which, as the name may suggest, is an imagined prequel to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Using stunning visuals and audio quality, Majora’s Mask offers a fan theory of how the Skull Kid acquired the Majora Mask.
Unsatisfied with merely making short movies about video games, Ember Lab took its first step into the gaming world with Kena: Bridge of Spirits. First revealed in 2020 during a Sony Playstation showcase, the game garnered itself a significant amount of attention for its stunning visuals reminiscent of a high-quality children’s movie. Featuring alongside titles like Ratchet & Clank and Horizon: Zero Dawn, Kena: Bridge of Spirits contained optimistic promises of what the next generation of gaming would look like.
Understandably, there were many who were instantly enchanted by the world of Kena: Bridge of Spirits. On the surface, all trailers and promotional material make it appear like a Pixar movie you can play. Although Ember Lab tried to reign in expectations, every snippet of gameplay that was released prior to the game’s launch only heightened hopes for the little indie title that was fast gaining a cult following.
Not only was Kena presented as an enigmatic spirit guide, but she was shown being followed around by an army of black fluffballs cute enough to make the Minions look uninspired. Pre-release gameplay trailers revealed that in addition to lush, explorable environments, Kena would be able to platform along sheer mountains like your favorite Uncharted game. As if having a cool glowing staff is not enough, it also transforms into a magical bow. It all sounds too good to be true.
Naturally, there was a fair share of skeptics to counterbalance the optimists leading up to the release of Kena: Bridge of Spirits. Many were cautious about putting too much faith into a small studio developing their first game. There are enough reasons throughout gaming history to maintain a level of healthy cautiousness. Wise minds would know to not be blinded by hype even when you have fluffballs as cute as the Rot enticing you.
With the release of Kena: Bridge of Spirits, however, not only have Ember Lab proven themselves as above competent creators, but they have also crafted one of the most enchanting games in recent memory.
The Story of a Spirit Guide
Kena: Bridge of Spirits focuses on Kena, a young and spunky spirit guide with a zest for helping others. She is on a quest to clear the forest of corruption and restore nature to its previous order. To do this, she must help some troubled souls overcome traumas that keep them tethered to this realm.
This, in typical video game fashion, involves knocking their lights out, but it also requires you to learn more about these pained spirits and the tragic stories that have caused them to become monsters. The narrative, for the most part, is presented in a simplistic manner with cutscenes that are light on dialogue and leave your imagination to fill in the missing pieces regarding the stories of the characters you come across.
Joining Kena on her adventure are adorable black fluffballs known as Rot. The Rot are an interesting subversion of the concept of decay, which is a concept that typically fills one up with disgust and revulsion. Instead, the Rot are irresistibly cute, and you will never tire on your quest to collect them all. The Rot serve as companions to Kena, but they also fulfill an important purpose. It is the Rot who cleanse the forest of corruption, clearing everything old and stale to make way for new, green life.
The Rot are an ever-present source of levity in a story that can get quite grim as it deals with themes of death, grief, regret, and trauma. However, much like a cutesy Pixar movie, none of these topics are handled in a fashion that would disturb any child present. Instead, they are navigated tastefully and woven into a fairytale-esque story that never fails to draw you in as it expertly paces its light and dark moments.
A Visual Feast
Part of why the story lands so solidly is because of the stunning visuals the game presents. It is during cutscenes where you truly see the studio’s roots in animation. Cutscenes are a top-notch, movie-quality affair, with the Rot serving as the cutest brand mascots since Pokémon.
Lighting effects are crucial to Kena and the aesthetics of the game, and they are expertly managed. From the glow of Kena’s staff to the blue light her protective pulse gives off, light is handled in a realistic fashion and it seems to naturally bounce off the environment. This adds an extra magical effect in scenes inside caves where reflecting light illuminates Kena’s doll-like, smooth face. Environmental lighting is also superb, and breathtaking scenes of crepuscular rays breaking through the forest canopy are never too far away.
While on the topic of the game’s environments, it would be remiss to not mention how gorgeous the settings of Kena: Bridge of Spirits are. Whether you are looking at grey caves lit up by magical blue flames or mountainscapes that watch over quaint villages, every iota of the world is picturesque eye-candy. Although mostly linear, there are plenty of opportunities for you to veer off the main trail and explore nearby scenery to find any stray Rot, collectibles, or beat down a couple of enemies.
The environments play a huge role in setting up the mood of the different story beats, especially because of how dynamic the different settings are. A happy skip through a bright green forest quickly turns dark and ominous once you enter a shady segment where the grass is dead and corruption coats everything. Once the Rot clear it out, and new life can flourish, the greenness of the flora that grows reestablishes that cheery feeling once more.
The cartoonish art style the game uses seems to infuse the ineffable, enchanting elements of Studio Ghibli films with the animated dynamicity of bouncy Western cartoons. The result is an immersive fantasy world that unfailingly fills you with childlike awe and ceaselessly presses you to explore every nook and cranny it presents.
On PS5, which was the version used for this review, Kena: Bridge of Spirits offers a Quality Mode which outputs at native 4K, 30FPS. On Performance Mode, it offers upscaled 4K at 60FPS. I had nary a frame drop to find, and after toggling between the two modes, there was not much visual difference to be seen between Quality Mode and Performance Mode. On PS4, Kena: Bridge of Spirits runs at 30FPS at 1080p. However, the PS4 version is unable to display all 100 Rot on your screen at once.
A Soundtrack That Captures the Beauty of Bali
As the voice actor has discussed, recording for Kena’s soundtrack took place in Bali. Hence much of the soundtrack features Balinese music and Balinese instruments. This results in the game having a unique soundtrack as you explore the forest. It is an earthy one that elicits a calm, almost zen-like feeling.
In a gaming landscape where most games slap on some orchestral background music and call it a day, it is quite gratifying to see a studio try something truly different. The soundtrack compliments the game’s tone perfectly, and it manages to ramp up in intensity at the right moments when a heated combat session is underfoot.
Enough cannot be said about the Rot, and the cute purring noises they make. It is something not unlike a contented cat, and it feels unfair to have so much cuteness in creatures so small. If Ember Lab is trying to use cuteness to sell games, it is surely working.
If there is one criticism that can be made, it is that at times, Kena’s voice acting can be a bit soft and unimpactful. One does occasionally wonder whether this is done intentionally to reflect Kena’s mostly gentle personality, but it does come off as though her lines were delivered in a weak fashion.
Unassumingly Gripping Gameplay
Previews of Kena: Bridge of Spirits have been somewhat comical with regards to the range of games that have been used as a comparison. Some have compared Kena: Bridge of Spirit’s combat to God of War, while others have compared it to Dark Souls.
In reality, it would be unfair to reduce Kena: Bridge of Spirits to a facsimile of any other game. It is obvious that it draws inspiration from sprawling, wanderlust-filled Nintendo adventure games like Legend of Zelda, and it mimics the close-up combat offered by most Sony first-party exclusives. However, Kena’s gameplay ultimately is unique and fleshed out, providing an experience that is tough but fair. It requires accuracy, consistency, and a keen eye for spotting the weaknesses of your enemies.
Having begun the game at the hardest difficulty available on the first playthrough, I was lulled into a false sense of confidence by the relative ease of the first portion of the game. It did not take long to get the hang of parrying, and most of the tinier grunts can be dealt with using a few light swings of Kena’s staff. However, upon encountering brawnier enemies that could end my run in two hits or less, it became obvious that the game does require some focus.
The bigger bosses are well-designed both visually and in terms of their combat. They feature weak points, will enter different phases, have move-sets with tells, and will react to you and dodge. Aggressive yet disciplined gameplay is greatly rewarded.
Assisting you against foes are the Rot. However, they are an easily frightened bunch. Hence, you will have to collect Courage during battles in order to coax them out. Once you have gathered enough Courage, your Rot can be used for various moves that can hinder or hurt your opponents. The integration of the Rot into combat ensures that you actually value these cuties, and it encourages you to keep hunting for more Rot to add to your army.
Between moments of intense combat, there are puzzle segments that are not too mentally taxing but are satisfying to solve. They come in the form of some light platforming as well as some environmental puzzles that require your Rot friends to help you out.
Is Kena: Bridge of Spirits a Masterpiece?
Perhaps the biggest criticisms that can be waged at the game must be directed at gameplay. Firstly, during combat, there is a lot of unnecessary screen clutter that comes in the form of enemy health bars and a reticle that cannot be removed. In an age where plenty of games can be played with a clean, HUD-free screen, it feels archaic to have enemy health bars floating around that cannot be turned off.
Additionally, Kena’s animations can be a little stilted at times. Her transition from walking to running is a little abrupt, and she lacks climbing animations and reactions to her environments. Swimming can also be a bit of a chore, with Kena moving as though she is wading through molasses whenever she is in water.
All the above complaints are mere nitpicking, however, and are the result of being spoiled by big-budget games. Remembering that Kena: Bridge of Spirits was made by a team small enough to fit into a bachelor apartment puts into perspective what a feat the game is.
While it would be an exaggeration to call Kena: Bridge of Spirits a masterpiece, it cannot be understated how much of a monumental achievement the game is. No longer is that special formula of magical storytelling mixed with Hollywood-tier presentation limited to a few AAA studios. Ember Lab has proven that there are indie teams capable of competing – and thriving – in that space.
Lastly, it has to be mentioned how fairly Kena: Bridge of Spirits is sold as a consumer product. Ember Lab has promoted the game as a smaller title from a tiny indie group, and they have priced it accordingly. However, it only takes a few moments with the game to realize that you are dealing with a high-quality product where no corners have been cut.
Whether it is the photo mode with its delightful poses, or Kena’s ability to take a time-out from the action and meditate with her Rot buddies, the amount of detail and polish on-show would fool you into believing this is a release from an established studio. At a price point of $40 for the standard edition, Ember Lab is offering a pretty enticing value proposition, even taking the game’s short length into account.
It is startling to think that one of the best games of the year has come in the form of a title that looks like something you would put on to amuse kids for a morning. Yet Kena: Bridge of Spirits boasts more heart and genuineness than many games could hope to exude. What Ember Lab has produced is a rejuvenation of the indie market, proving that the little guys can box with the best. For anyone looking for a game that will bring a smile to their face, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is not to be missed.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is available on PS4, PS5, and PC.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits
- Score: 4 / 5
- Available On: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC
- Published By: Ember Lab
- Developed By: Ember Lab
- Genre: Action-adventure
- US Release Date: September 21st, 2021
- Reviewed On: PlayStation 5
- Quote: "For anyone looking for a game that will bring a smile to their face, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is not to be missed."