A game like Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a rare and precious thing.
It is not often at all that a game has everything going for it: mind-blowing visuals, a touching story, engaging exploration and edge-of-your-seat combat. A game that delivers all four of those with finesse? Very rare indeed. But Kena: Bridge of Spirits, the first game from Ember Lab, manages it. And not just by the skin of its teeth; comfortably and successfully, like this is a game made by an established first party studio. It’s just that good, and I can’t get over it.
It’s not that I didn’t expect Kena: Bridge of Spirits to be good. I did; I previewed it back in June, playing a hour-long slither from the first act of the game. It was enjoyable and it looked beautiful, but it still left me with questions about the full experience. It’s been much of a question mark for a lot of people it would seem; after being revealed at a showcase last year, not much else has been heard about it – other than a delay. But it was worth the wait. More than worth the wait, in fact, because in the ten-or-so hours I’ve been playing Kena this weekend, I’ve been confident that I’ve been playing one of the best games of the year.
But enough gushing; let’s get to the whys and hows.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits casts you as the eponymous Kena. She’s a young girl with an extraordinary power; she’s a Spirit Guide, which means she helps the spirits of the recently deceased find their way into the next life. Her role sees her arrive at a desolate village, helping two young children find their lost brother. Along her journey, Kena will meet various people, all needing her help to guide their spirit into the light. It’s not always simple, though, and Kena will have to face their demons – and her own – before her job is done.
The most obvious thing about Kena: Bridge of Spirits is just how utterly gorgeous it is. Playing on PS5, this really does look like an interactive Pixar movie. Development studio Ember Lab has a background in animation, and that really does show. Environments are absolutely bursting with gorgeous detail and everywhere you look there’s something to catch your attention; maybe it’s the water lapping against the rocks below you, or a stone shrine off in the distance. The characters, too, are brought to life with so much love – each and every one of them. If you’d showed me a picture of Kena a year ago and told me she was the next Disney Princess, I’d have no reason to doubt you. It really is an incredible treat for the eyes.
Comparing Kena: Bridge of Spirits to a Disney/Pixar vehicle feels a little reductive, though, because this is very much its own thing. The developers have done an incredible job of crafting out a unique but well-realised world; a world that simply begs to be explored. And indeed, it can be. While Kena‘s story is rather linear, its world is fairly open, and you have the freedom to travel wherever you please. It pays dividends to explore off the beaten path, too. You’ll find hidden challenges, treasures, collectibles and more.
Perhaps what wins in the visuals stakes – at least in terms of sheer adorableness – are the ‘Rot’. These tiny fluffy black things are woodland creatures who have an affinity with Kena. From their first meeting, the Rot cling to Kena and are sworn to help her on her journey. As you play, you’ll collect more Rot – if you’re playing on PS5 you can have up to one hundred of them following you wherever you go. They can help you solve puzzles by moving objects in the environment, helping clear Corruption – more on that in a moment – and even assisting in combat. If that’s not enough, you can even dress them up in cute hats.
As for that ‘Corruption’ business – well, the village that Kena has come to save has been overrun with a dark presence, allowing evil entities to sneak in. Wherever they tread, you’ll find Corruption – ominous red growths sprouting from the ground, flora and buildings. By defeating nearby enemies , Kena can cleanse the area of Corruption, using the power of the Rot to help her. Seeing the land turn from sorrowful and dark back to green and thriving is always a joy.
There’s a surprising amount of combat here, and for the most part it’s excellent – though if you’re playing on anything other than ‘Story’ difficulty, it’s increasingly challenging. Regular enemies will go down without too much trouble, but larger enemies and bosses – of which there’s more than your fair share of – require precision and skill. Luckily, Kena has quite the arsenal, and early on into the game you’ll begin to unlock powerful skills. Her staff allows you to make light and heavy attacks, and soon enough you’re given a bow, which allows you to attack from range. Add to that the abilities you can unlock for your Rot – including the ability to turn them into a powerful ‘Rot hammer’ – and you have an impressive medley to keep your adversaries at bay. You’ll always need to stay quick on your feet, dodging out of the way of incoming attacks and employing your shield – a magical bubble that encases Kena for a short time – at the right moment to perform a parry.
It’s tough, and if you’re not well-versed at action-heavy games, then you may find Kena: Bridge of Spirits‘ combat a little overwhelming. Thankfully, Ember Lab has thought of that, and the game’s ‘Story’ difficulty mode decreases how challenging each encounter is. Bosses still won’t simply roll over, mind – particularly later on in the game – but it’s a welcome and appreciated addition for those who need it. If you’d rather go the other way, and turn the difficulty up to eleven, there’s an option for you, too. A fourth difficulty (for the truly masochistic) opens up once you’ve completed the game.
Outside of combat, you’ll be spending time solving environmental puzzles. You’ll be shooting targets, using your Rot to move things around, and more. There’s plenty of platforming too, and controlling Kena is a delight. Playing on PS5’s Performance mode, the framerate stays close to 60 frames per second during gameplay, and so every movement is silky smooth. Kena runs, jumps and grabs onto ledges just as you’d expect her to; if you ever miss a jump, you know you misjudged it, rather than the controls letting you down. Later on, you’ll unlock some nifty skills which make traversal even more of a joy; you can fire arrows into special flowers, sending you soaring over to their position. And blowing up certain rocks with a special bomb ability will create new pathways through the air – some of which need to be manipulated further before you can walk across them.
Along with Performance mode, there’s also Fidelity mode, which aims for a constant 4K resolution at the expense of framerate. It locks at 30fps; it’s a very noticeable drop for very little gain. There’s minimal difference in visuals – it looks so beautiful in Performance mode that there’s no need to consider Fidelity.
Every single moment of Kena: Bridge of Spirits is simply wonderful. Very few games are as pleasing to the eyes, and coming from an indie studio – making its very first game, of all things – that’s something quite remarkable. Even more remarkable is that Kena isn’t simply a visual showcase, either. It’s challenging, fun to play, and has a world teeming with life. It also tells a fantastic story, and there’s plenty to do even when the credits have rolled. Kena: Bridge of Spirits truly is something special, and I can’t wait to see what Ember Lab does next.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits Review – GameSpew’s Score