Title: Kena: Bridge of Spirits
Developer: Ember Lab
Release Date: September 21, 2021
Reviewed On: PS5
Publisher: Ember Lab
Genre: Action Adventure
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the debut title from developer Ember Lab, which delivers an experience that genuinely surprises you with its lofty ambitions. It’s one that even raises the bar for how we understand indie gaming. Yes, this is indeed an indie effort and, yet, it feels like so much more.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits follows protagonist Kena, a spirit guide who arrives at a mysterious mountain village that has long been abandoned with only restless spirits remaining. As beautiful as this lush mountain landscape is, it’s also plagued by a spiritual disease called Corruption, bringing about demonic entities. As a spirit guide, Kena hopes to purify these lost souls and help those with unfinished business find closure and cross to the other side. Early on, she meets the spirits of two children seeking their missing sibling, getting the first major story arc underway.
The story is delivered through fully-voiced cinematics, some of which use the in-game engine while others use fully animated CGI, all coming together like something from Pixar or Dreamworks. The presentation is beautiful through its spiritually charged world that borrows from ancient Eastern cultures. As you assist one group of spirits, other arcs follow the same profound narrative themes worthy of a feature film. This is a world that’s easy to lose yourself in, and the cast is compelling as they each go through a journey of loss and longing in their own way.
It goes without saying Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a gorgeous-looking game, and it honestly could have been the perfect launch title for PS5, especially with its sizeable seamless game world and effective use of DualSense feedback. Still, even at this point, you’d be hard-pressed to find such a visually stunning showcase. What will likely stand the test of time more than the graphics is the incredible cinematic soundtrack. The musical score uses tribal instruments and primordial rhythms to help players immerse themselves in the setting.
As an action-adventure, Kena: Bridge of Spirits has players explore a rich and diverse setting to battle evil spirits and rid the land of Corruption. Armed with a staff and being able to draw upon spirit energy, Kena is versatile in what she can do.
Her spirit energy allows her to purify areas offering some of the most remarkable moments of the experience as you witness an area come back to life. Kena’s spirit energy aids her in combat, as she uses her staff for combo attacks and even has a few defensive maneuvers up her sleeve. Later on, she’s able to use a spirit arrow and even a spirit bomb. These abilities play a vital role both in combat and within the level design, where environmental puzzles require the use of spirit arrows and bombs in intuitive ways.
The interconnected game world in Kena: Bridge of Spirits is rife with clever environmental puzzles teeming with rewards that are fun to figure out. Throughout the adventure, Kena must collect creatures called Rot. Although an unflattering name for such adorable-looking critters, the Rot serves numerous purposes in complementing Kena’s spirit energy. They aid in the purification of Corruption and can even be commanded to move objects around to solve puzzles. Later, they assist in combat, initially by only distracting enemies, but with upgrades, they can add to Kena’s offensive flurry.
The thing about Kena is that it has a lot going for it, and the various moving parts are almost too numerous to discuss. Still, they all come together organically and blend seamlessly into the design of the game world. Being able to upgrade Kena’s abilities and combat using Karma crystals is a testament to this. As you collect more Rot creatures to add to your party, they too level up and learn abilities, further adding to Kena’s combat repertoire.
Although the game allows ample exploration and presents sweeping cinematic set pieces, it is also quite combat-heavy. While ordinary enemies don’t interrupt the flow of exploration too much, the real test comes from the many boss battles scattered throughout the adventure.
These bosses harken back to the early days of 3D gaming, with their unique patterns and weak points, often pushing players to make full use of Kena’s abilities. One thing most players will likely do here is try to dodge boss attacks, but honestly, the best approach is to block with the spirit pulse, and if you time it just right, you can initiate a powerful parry rebound to stagger the boss.
These bosses become increasingly complex, and some of the later boss battles really push you to the limit, but they are always so rewarding to figure out. The cool thing here is players can pace these battles in different ways; going after the boss’s weak points early can dish out big damage faster, but it also makes them more aggressive, so for some players taking the slow and steady approach might work better.
The bosses towards the end game are controller tossing affairs, especially since they dish out high damage and summon too many minions. Yet, Kena’s combat prowess and abilities shine the most in these difficult situations. The only real drawback is the lack of an effective lock-on system, and at times players may be fighting the camera, especially when cornered.
The first story arc presents a thoughtfully designed game world filled with segments that involve climbing, platforming, and using spirit abilities to access new areas. Once you defeat the end of the boss of the first arc, the game world and scope suddenly shifts into something truly epic, and honestly, you’ll want to experience this firsthand for yourself. The massive game world is connected via fast travel points, but this is definitely one of those adventures you’ll want to take your time with. There are just so many collectibles to discover, and it’s naturally compelling to explore every inch of the environment.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a remarkable and magical adventure, and it’s honestly still hard to believe this is an indie title. This is the kind of game that simply needs to be part of every gamer’s library and one that raises the bar for the adventure genre in this generation. With emotional story beats, a compelling game world, engaging level design, challenging boss battles, and surprising combat versatility, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an experience far greater than the sum of its many interconnected parts.
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