Kena: Bridge of Spirits was first shown at the PlayStation showcase back in 2020 and quickly became many people’s most anticipated games of 2021. After a few delays, the game is finally here, and EMber Labs have put together something pretty special for their first game. There are clear inspirations from Legend of Zelda, and this action-adventure game has me excited for what Ember Labs may produce in the future.
At the heart of the game Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an action-adventure game, there are puzzles and boss battles. At times it does feel like a throwback to a PlayStation 3 era style game, given its not really open-world, it’s more a series of set pieces and corridors through the levels, however, there’s a high level of polish here, and I think it’s good enough to check out.
The first thing that hits you is the striking beauty of Kena: Bridge of Spirits. It’s a very good-looking game, most likely rooted in Ember Labs’ past as a 3D animation house. I’ve mentioned the Legend of Zelda already as inspiration, and Ember Labs went as far to create a fan film based on Majora’s Mask called Terrible Fate. If you haven’t seen it before, you should definitely check it out. Since Ember Labs have gone on a journey to make Kena: Bridge of Spirits, and their first game is a decent start on PlayStation 5 and PC.
Regarding the story in the game, Kena is a Spirit Guide who helps spirits move on to the next life. They either have trouble moving on because of guilt or some unfinished business in the world. Kena is the main protagonist in the game and we work our way through the lush environments, under siege from a mysterious corruption and we have to make our way to the sacred mountain shrine. Along the way, we meet kids and helpful NPCs who tell stories about the world, plus there are puzzles to solve and spirits to guide, as well as bosses to battle.
The story can feel a little thin, as we don’t find out too much about Kena, her motivations, or who she is. It would have been nice for the character to have been fleshed out a little more, as it appears as if much of the development has gone into the graphical fidelity of the game. As mentioned, the game looks beautiful, the character designs are like something out of a Pixar movie, but what this game really needs is a fleshed-out story. It’s all very much surface level and when you scratch underneath it’s a little shallow regarding the story.
It’s understandable considering this is the first game from Ember Labs. The team clearly loves the Zelda franchise, and the gameplay harks back to games like Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It’s fairly linear with a zone you have to explore, items to collect and a few battles to be had along the way. Although the game functions in a throwback manner, that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable at all. The environments are stunning and the combat difficulty ramps up sufficiently as you progress. This isn’t Disney’s Dark Souls by any means, but there is a challenge in here for sure.
There’s a formula to Kena: Bridge of Spirits. You’ll come across a lead on a new spirit, explore an area, battle various enemies and then face off against the Spirit in an effort to get them to move on into the afterlife. As you make your way through the area you’ll learn more about the spirit subject, understand why they are stuck and what troubles they have, before coercing them off into the afterlife with your weapons.
Talking of the weapons, combat in Kena: Bridge of Spirits is pretty good fun. It’s fast, challenging, and pretty straightforward. You have your standard light attack, heavy attack, dodge combinations, and then a few hours into the game you’ll unlock a bow, which certainly makes things much easier given you can attack at range. It’s simply straightforward. This is good for new players, and perhaps this game is aimed at a younger demographic given the graphical look and feel. There isn’t much beyond what I have described, meaning there’s not much depth to the combat. This certainly isn’t Horizon Zero Dawn, and that is somewhat of a minus point for the game. Looking on the positive side, it’s quick to pick up and play, but beyond that, there’s not much complexity or variety involved in the combat.
Early in the game, you’ll meet the Rot. They are tiny, the cute little creatures you collect as you progress, similar to finding Korok seeds in Breath of the Wild. However, these cute little guys have much more of a purpose than simple collectibles. You can control and direct the rot. For example, you’ll be directing them to cleanse the environment of the corruption, as well as move items and you can even launch them at enemies or Spirit enemies and cause some good damage. Each area has a bunch of Rot to fid and collect and you can even buy them little hats.
Hand-in-hand with combat is resource management. As you fight you’ll build up Courage, which is needed to attack enemies with the Rot. This is also needed to cleanse the surrounding area so you’re going to need to be smart as to when you use it or not. If you run out, do not worry, simply attack enemies to replenish your stocks. This does make for some interesting tactical decisions, however, as you’ll often have to choose between using your resources to fight or use them to replenish health.
As you progress through the game there are upgrade paths for your movement abilities. For example, Kena gets a dash attack, a stronger melee slam attack, and a parry reply attack, however, they don’t really reward you for the time and effort you’ve put into upgrading Kena in the first place. In certain situations they are useful, but given the time required to upgrade Kena then these abilities should feel stronger. There’s also weapon upgrades too including a very useful charged bow shot and the ability to activate slow motion, which makes taking out tough enemies much easier than real-time speed. Movement abilities are a little meh, but the weapon ability upgrades are worth the investment.
Boss battles in Kena: Bridge of Spirits are particularly good, and challenging. Each boss feels like its own set-piece, it doesn’t feel like mechanics have been reused and each one feels unique and satisfying.
Complimenting the combat are the other parts of the gameplay loop, namely exploring, platforming and puzzle-solving. This is one of the more delightful elements of Kena: Bridge of Spirits. The platforming feels pretty good, exploration is satisfying, especially in a world as beautiful as this one. The puzzles aren’t too tricky, they tend to be environmental puzzles where you are locked off from proceeding. You may have to engage with the Rot to move something so you can climb to a new area, or press down a switch of some kind. If you’ve played a game like Zelda then you’ll be very comfortable with the puzzles in Kena: Bridge of Spirits. The puzzles are good fun, and there’s plenty of secrets to find too, hidden away in the little hidey-hole, s keep your eyes peeled when you are exploring.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits was one of my most anticipated games of 2021, given its luscious introduction at the PlayStation showcase in 2020. It’s hard to believe this is the first effort from Ember Lab. There certainly are drawbacks with the game in regards to the combat and the mid-2000’s feel to the game, however, it’s a great effort from an indie team, and it makes me excited for what they will do next. It’s a gorgeous-looking game, plus it’s an ambitious new IP. In a time when we’re surrounded by remakes and sequels, hats off to the development team for creating a new story and world, and I would recommend seeking it out if you enjoy single-player action-adventure games.
Developer: Ember Labs
Publisher: Ember Labs
Platforms: PS5 and PC (Epic Game Store)
Release Date: 24th August 2021