Kena: Bridge of Spirits Review – An Excellent Debut

Developer – Ember Lab

Publisher – Ember Lab

Platform(s) – PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (reviewed), PC

MSRP – $39.99

Release Date – September 21, 2021

Instant curiosity was accomplished from Ember Lab after the reveal trailer for Kena: Bridge of Spirits back at the PlayStation 5 reveal event in June of 2020. This is the studio’s first-ever game after being mostly known for a viral tribute to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Going from a mini-film to a full-fledged game release in a matter of 4 years is a remarkable feat. Through 2 delays, Kena has finally been released worldwide for PlayStation 4 & 5 as well as PC.

If anyone was paying attention to the discourse for Kena: Bridge of Spirits before release, you’d know there was some concern. The team at Ember Lab hadn’t released any new footage of the game for a few months, plus there was a one-month delay from August to September. I do know that there was suspicion of how many reviews copies were sent out.

I understand the feeling of uncertainty some had but my purchase of Kena was never in doubt. However this game turned out, I was going to play and find for myself. Most of what I had heard and seen only raised my interest in experiencing this debut title and I’m delighted that I did.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits takes place in an area that was ruined many years earlier by corrupt spirits. The protagonist is Kena, a young girl and spirit guide. You come across people that have experienced trauma due to the corruption that has plagued the land for all these years. It’s up to you to defeat all the corrupt enemies you come across and bring stability to the territory.

One area Kena surprised me in was how deep and engaging its story was. Most noteworthy characters who’ve been affected by the corrupt spirits get their own exposition on what led them here. Each explanation was so well done in terms of visuals and dialogue and had me hooked on every word. For a game that didn’t have much emphasis on its narrative in the marketing, the well-put-together nature was a welcome surprise. Kena as the main protagonist is delightful, her character while simple is effective. The performance capture work from Dewa Ayu Dewi Larassanti and the rest of the cast for that matter is impressive especially for a smaller studio like Ember Lab.

Rot are an integral part of the gameplay aspects of Kena. Rot are little black-colored adorable creatures that I’m sure everyone has seen by now. As you explore, you’ll find more and more Rot to collect and you can even give them hast and masks. Rot can aid you in combat and as well as help you uncover chests, move objects, and helps you progress throughout the land.

Speaking of Combat, it’s by far my favorite aspect of Kena: Bridge of Spirits. Your arsenal is fairly simple with a staff and a bow & arrow. As you explore the world you can acquire karma that’ll help towards the skill tree. The skill tree is straightforward as any skill tree you’ll see. You can upgrade things such as arrow capacity, bomb abilities, and staff abilities.

Combat in Kena gives me that satisfaction of wanting to continue even when I’m getting my ass kicked on occasion. Your staff is mainly used for melee and special abilities such as a rot ground-and-pound. Your staff acts as a big & arrow which may I add makes good use of the DualSense adaptive triggers. Enemy variety is good but can feel a bit repetitive at certain points, the bosses in this game are the exact opposite.

Boss fights are a big part of Kena and each major one is so distinct and unique to figure out. The difficulty was a big revelation to me after some time, I did not go into this game expecting to be challenged at all. For anyone that wants a pleasant and non aggravating experience, there are difficulty levels that cater to what type of player you are.

Personally, I welcome the challenge that came from the devs at Ember Lab. I usually died about 3 or 4 times before I took down a major boss as I gathered information each time. The only boss that took me a long while to take down was the final boss. If you’re not playing the game on “story mode” difficulty, be prepared for the tension of that last boss.

There’s been a discussion lately on whether a game needs to innovate in some way to be enjoyable and I answer that with a NO. When I play and review a game, I judge it on whether or not it was enjoyable for what it is.

The recent Spider-Man games from Insomniac Games can be used as an example. Spider-Man PS4 that was released in 2018 didn’t innovate in a big way. You can also argue that the Spider-Man Miles Morales was similar in many ways to the 2018 installment apart from the narrative. Keeping all that in mind, Spider-Man PS4 was in my top 3 games of 2018 and I thought its successor in Spider-Man Miles Morales was better after completion.

My point is I don’t agree with some of the criticisms that Kena doesn’t do anything particularly new. The reality is it didn’t need to innovate to be successful and it’s driven home by the fact that Kena was #1 in the US and #3 in the EU for top downloads on the PSN Store.

It’s a pleasure to traverse the world of Kena: Bridge of Spirits, especially considering how gorgeous this game is. Visually, this game is stunning, it almost gets to Pixar level of fidelity. The spectacular beauty stood out in the first trailer I saw and it carries over to the game in full capacity. I typically don’t use photo mode and only a few games have tempted me to use it, Kena is one of those games.

The environments are a pleasure to explore. Early in the game, the setting may feel a bit too one-dimensional but it quickly changes tone. Going from grasslands to corrupt plains to snowy regions feels substantial and worth noting.

Scattered throughout the land, you’ll have a multitude of activities. Whether it’s hitting targets with your bow or completing a timed challenge where you have to beat a certain amount of enemies in a time limit, it’s all so enjoyable. Puzzles are a frequent occurrence, they aren’t too hard but a couple will definitely rack your brain a bit.

The fact that Ember Lab had such a tremendous first outing with Kena: Bridge of Spirits is so remarkable when you consider this is their first game. Everything about this game feels so smooth and polished, I didn’t experience a single bug or glitch throughout my entire playthrough.

Everything I could’ve wanted from this game delivered exceptionally. I wanted visuals that matched what I saw in the trailers, I got that. I wanted a satisfying combat experience, they exceeded that. I didn’t even expect the narrative to be as engaging as it was, they surprised me with that. If it isn’t clear, I strongly recommend Kena: Bridge of Spirits if you can get it.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an excellent debut title for the team over at Ember Lab. I couldn’t be any more content with my experience and I know many others feel the same way. While there’s no doubt their next title is years away, I will be there on Day 1 for whatever it is.

Rating - 9.5/10

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