Kena: Bridge of Spirits might well be one of the most high-profile and anticipated indie titles for this year, gracing PlayStation consoles and PCs with a debut effort from video production house-turned-developer Ember Lab. With the game finally out in the world, it feels like a lot of expectations are riding on it to be a killer app. In reality those expectations might be a little too high for some, but what’s on offer is pretty much exactly what I’d hoped it would be.
Kena’s adventure starts with little in the way of set-up. We’re told straight off the bat that our hero is a Spirit Guardian – someone with the power to help trapped spirits move on from the mortal world – and that she’s come to a new land seeking a sacred mountain shrine on a personal journey. Kena finds the shrine’s nearby village and surrounds have been corrupted and twisted by a powerful restless spirit and sets off to use her power to cleanse the poisoned regions and put things right. Kena also meets the Rot, the endearing little critters that have made waves in the game’s pre-release marketing for just being cute, adopting up to 100 of them as she makes her way across the gorgeous world that Ember Lab has created.
That’s the real draw here, Kena’s beautiful, lush setting draws from inspirations like Studio Ghibli, DreamWorks and Laika to great effect. Ember Lab’s roots are in video production, animation and digital content and the studio’s certainly put its best foot forward here. Everything from environmental detail to lighting, animation and effects are far beyond what’s expected in the indie sphere and I constantly found myself in awe of the views on offer. It’s a treat on the PlayStation 5 in particular, where a dynamic 4K mode with a 60fps target brings it all to life (save for pivotal scenes delivered via pre-rendered video at a more filmic framerate). Plus, the new-gen version has the full benefit of rendering all of the Rot that befriend and follow Kena through the game.
The traditional Balinese motifs found throughout help the fantastic art stand out, and bleed into an excellent soundtrack offering. Composer Jason Gallaty in collaboration with Balinese ensemble group Gamelan Çudamani has put together something truly special where breezy, percussive rhythms meet playful wind and strings, ramping up to a stirring swell in heated scenes.
Bridge of Spirits’ core gameplay loop over the span of its 8-10 hour story sees Kena traverse the game world, section by section, ridding it of the corruption while locating special relics in each region to summon a lost spirit. Each of the three spirits comes with their own tragic backstory and reason for being shackled to the mortal realm, and each appears in the form of an epic boss fight to cap off their section of the game and allow Kena to help them cross over.
As you progress and free each of the spirits, Kena learns more about them as well as how the land came to be the way that it is. Their stories are quite heartbreaking, and helping them to let go of the ties that bind them is bittersweet and at times more engaging than the main plot thread. But even if these don’t resonate, the satisfaction of witnessing the land slowly spring back to life is plenty reason to see it through.
It’s a simple game in premise and structure, which means that the story ends up being somewhat forgettable but also works to keep both narrative and gameplay breezy and accessible. Rather than overextend themselves on giving their first ever game a ton of depth or complexity, the team at Ember Lab has crafted something that feels distinctly reminiscent of PS2-era 3D action-adventure titles. The mostly-linear journey strikes a comfortable rhythm of pushing Kena toward the next piece of the puzzle while allowing enough scope for players to explore the world at their own pace. Each region is well-designed to prevent players feeling lost or stuck in an area with no immediate challenge to tackle.
Similarly, there’s not a lot of depth to the combat, but it’s still got a nice level of difficulty that ramps up as Kena gains new tools and abilities. With basic melee attacks, a shield and parry alongside the gradual additions of a bow, bombs and a dash there are just enough options to keep things interesting even if overall strategies don’t change or evolve too much. The Rot help out too, reaching for healing plants and pinning down enemies when prompted to, like the little fuzzy Pikmin that they are. A couple of the late-game bosses do put up a halfway decent fight, but puzzling out the best way to take them down is more satisfying than frustrating (and a ‘Story’ difficulty is on hand if the situation calls).
Kena’s abilities aren’t limited to combat either with plenty of platforming and environmental puzzles to tackle, most of which are fairly straightforward but ultimately satisfying. Whether racing across timed platforms, climbing Uncharted-style structures or commanding the Rot to help with heavy lifting the game’s mechanics and movement feel pretty much bang-on. Enough to keep me on my toes but never once causing a failure that wasn’t my own.
It’s a good time for completionists too, with plenty of opportunity to poke around the environment and dig up secrets. New Rot friends can be found hiding under rocks or behind puzzles not unlike Breath of the Wild’s Koroks, and there are a plethora of adorable hats to find and equip them with – perfect for cute snaps in the game’s robust Photo Mode that includes a ‘Cheese!’ button (Why don’t more Photo Modes have a ‘Cheese!’ button?). It nails the joy of discovery and surprise that marks the greats from the likes of Nintendo.
As an indie effort and a debut game, Kena: Bridge of Spirits makes a good impression. It balances simplicity and challenge while weaving a neatly-paced story into something that can be played over a chill couple of days. Despite fantastic production values it's still far from a AAA title – so it's important to keep expectations in check, but anyone looking to lose themselves in a charming, gorgeous world ripe for exploration should look no further. It's exactly what I needed right now – perfect cozy weekend entertainment.
Rich, gorgeous environments and charming characters