Review – Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Overview

Developer Ember Lab
Publisher Ember Lab
Genre Action-Adventure
Platforms PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC (reviewed)
Release Date September 21, 2021

When the debut trailer for Kena: Bridge of Spirits dropped last year, I was stunned by its high-end animation and story-driven focus. But I was also curious: who is Ember Lab, the developer behind this eye-catching title? As it turns out, Ember Lab has existed for over a decade as an animation studio working primarily for major companies on animated advertisements. Kena, then, serves as their first foray into gaming. From the outset, it was clear that their experience as animators would shine through in Kena’s visuals. But how well would they execute on all the other fundamental aspects of game design? Does Kena deliver the whole package? Read on to find out!

Content Guide

Violence: Kena attacks her foes by whacking them with her staff and by casting magic spells at them; in turn, her enemies attack with claws, axes, and other melee weapons. There is no blood or gore in the game.

Sexual Content: All of the characters are modestly dressed. One of the major subplots centers around a lesbian couple.

Spiritual Themes: All of the NPCs Kena interacts with are spirits of dead people, spirits who have yet to move on to the afterlife. Kena sits and meditates to increase max HP; she also wields spiritual energy, using it to change the environment and attack enemies.

Positive Themes: Kena shows compassion on the spirits she encounters, even when they fight against her. The overall tenor of the game is one of redemption and finding peace.

ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

Review

As I expected, Kena boasts a spectacular audio/visual presentation, evident from start to finish. Kena is absolutely gorgeous. Every aspect—from the Pixar-esque character design, to the slick animations, to the stirring score and sound design, to the lush environments—showcases an impressive level of detail and a knack for stylized flourish. Furthermore, the dialogue is well-written and each character receives an excellent voice performance.

From a storytelling perspective, though, Kena gets off to a rough start. The introduction feels rushed, as the main character Kena appears with almost no explanation of who she is or what she does, apart from the fact that, as a spirit guide, she bears the responsibility to help wayward spirits of the deceased overcome their emotional baggage and make their way into the afterlife. You soon discover that a mysterious catastrophe has left a village decimated and abandoned, and Kena is on her way to the nearby Mountain Shrine to not only help the remaining spirits, but also to restore balance to the area and lift the lingering corruption.

Most of the storytelling revolves around the various spirits in and around the village that Kena meets and assists. Individually, each of these stories is compellingly told, with the likeable characters standing out in particular. But the game falls short again when dealing with Kena herself. At several points throughout the narrative, the game hints at Kena’s backstory, even going so far as to make her own baggage an obstacle to her progress; I began to hope that the details missing in the game’s introduction might become clear as the game reached its climax. However, these issues are never fully addressed or resolved. You don’t even get a hint that they might be tackled in DLC or a future game; they’re just dropped. It left me feeling like the developers had more story that they wanted to tell, but bit off more than they could chew and couldn’t figure out how to tie up the loose ends they’d left themselves.

While the story doesn’t always hit the mark, the combat impresses throughout the game. In addition to basic melee attacks, Kena learns how to channel spirit energy in a way that lets her use her staff as a bow or an axe, as well as throw sticky bombs. She also gets an assist from the Rot—adorable little creatures that befriend her as she finds them around the village—who add firepower to her attacks and interact with objects that heal her. Kena doesn’t have an extensive moveset, but each move feels polished and proves useful against specific enemy types.

Speaking of enemy types, the game throws a wide variety of enemies at you, periodically adding new types as you advance through the story, and frequently changing the mix so that every encounter feels fresh and interesting. The boss fights are even better; each boss wields a different weapon, displays distinct movement patterns, and in most cases enters multiple phases, requiring you to memorize their moves and utilize your various attacks. They remind me of Dark Souls bosses, but they do enough of their own thing to keep unique to Kena. I like them so much, in fact, that I leave disappointed that the game lacks a boss rush mode that could let me easily replay them again.

Not all your time is spent in combat, however. You can also roam around the abandoned village and surrounding countryside, and the same abilities that you use in combat also allow you to reach new areas in the open world, which is great design. While exploring, you’ll find a plethora of treasure chests to open, combat challenges to test your skills, and corruption to clear out of the environment. Every combat challenge introduces a distinct twist, such as killing enemies within a time limit or without getting hit, which causes you to think differently than you might in other combat scenarios. The treasure hunting, sadly, is not as interesting. The vast majority of treasure chests contain either new hats for the Rot creatures, or currency with which to purchase hats at the store. While these cute hats dovetail nicely with the aesthetic, they add little to the overall experience and serve as a poor incentive for exploration by themselves. The game would have benefitted from a greater variety of rewards, even if they remained cosmetic; some outfit changes for Kena herself would have been a nice touch, for example.

So then, I return to the question I posed at the beginning: does Kena deliver the whole package? The answer is complicated, but thankfully it contains a lot more “yes” than “no.” While the storytelling is a mixed bag and the open world needs more attractive rewards, the combat is exhilarating and presentation matches the best that the medium can offer right now. Considering that this is Ember Lab’s first game—and a somewhat smaller budget game at that, seeing as it costs $40 rather than the typical $60-$70 for a AAA game—their success with this title is remarkable, and the potential for growth is exciting. I’m eager to see where they go from here, especially if they continue Kena’s story and pick up the plot threads they left behind.

The Bottom Line

 

Though not without its shortcomings, Kena: Bridge of Spirits excels thanks to its exhilarating combat and breath-taking visuals.

 

8.5

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Michael Mendis

Michael Mendis loves to discuss gaming, Christian faith, and how the two interact. In addition to his main hobby of playing video games, he also enjoys watching movies, anime, and baseball.

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