Kena Bridge of Spirits Review: Finding the Way
Kena Bridge of Spirits is the closest a game has ever come to capturing the feel of a big Pixar-Esque animated movie. It's clear that Ember Lab has put its experience in animation to fantastic use, but Kena Bridge of Spirits is also an incredible first effort from the studio in game development.
Kena is a delightful game that puts a huge emphasis on exploration, and its world feels alive because of it.
Kena Bridge of Spirits Review: Finding the Way
The story follows Kena, a Spirit Guide, who arrives in a remote village in search of its legendary Mountain Shrine. Something is incredibly wrong in the village, however; it's infested with a plant-like corruption, and the inhabitants are nowhere to be seen outside of two small children. As a Spirit Guide, Kena has to bring peace to the villagers' lingering spirits and help them cross over to the spirit realm.
Kena Bridge of Spirits takes inspiration from a variety of other games, from Breath of the Wild to Horizon Zero Dawn. You explore each piece of the village and its surrounding areas as Kena tracks down three "relics' tied to the memories of each spirit she's trying to save. Adorable little creatures called Rot join Kena and function as the game's main collectible, as well as the primary way of leveling up and getting stronger.
The Rot are easily one of my favorite aspects of the entire game as the little rascals follow you everywhere and constantly pop up. They sit on shelves, dance on rocks, mill about Kena, and more. Kena's relationship with the rot is symbiotic, and the game does a fantastic job of communicating that visually.
Of course, the Rot also play directly into the game's combat system, which is intentionally simple but dynamic nonetheless. Kena has light and heavy attacks, and you can make a Smash Bros.-style bubble shield appear around her by holding the block button. Those are the basics, but Kena does a fantastic job of layering in new mechanics and abilities throughout the experience.
You’ll unlock a spirit bow for ranged attacks, armor-piercing bombs, a dash move, and more. There’s a nice variety of enemy types, but Kena really excels in its climactic boss battles.
Each of the game’s penultimate enemies present a massive difficulty spike, and some of the late-game bosses had me retrying a dozen times before I could finally overcome them. A majority of the boss battles feel mechanically well-designed, but there are a few that pale in comparison to the others, like the disappointing and frustrating final boss.
While there’s plenty of combat throughout Kena, the crux of the experience revolves around exploration and puzzle-solving, which the Rot and Kena's abilities also play into. When it’s not being used to shoot enemies, the bow can activate crystals or work as a grappling hook in specific cases, while bombs can freeze rocks in place to create platforms.
Meanwhile, the Rot can be used to pick up and move objects, and certain flowers turn the Rot into a controllable creature, similar to Pikmin. Not since Breath of the Wild have I played a game that feels so rewarding in its exploration, whether you’re uncovering a new Rot pal, a Flower Shrine, Soul Mail, or simply taking in a gorgeous view.
There’s a veritable bread-crumb trail of rewards, and even though the game’s systems were what initially drew me in, the story ended up doing just the same.
Kena’s narrative deals with some heavy emotional themes, like dealing with death and loss while trying to move on. The game tackles its themes gracefully, and also brings a diverse cast of characters to the table.
Part of what I enjoyed so much about Kena’s story was that it doesn't bog itself down with exposition, but rather jumps right into its core problems and how they’re resolved. The fantastic animation, both in-game and through pre-rendered cutscenes, only helps to add even more depth to the game’s already emotive characters.
The best word I can think of to describe Kena is wholesome. Its design feels a bit dated, but in a good way, and I couldn’t help but have a smile on my face for most of my playthrough. The game never overstays its welcome, and despite a few obtuse puzzles and frustrating boss battles, it’s an experience that does nearly everything right. It may not do anything entirely new or shocking, but it’s a comfy experience that’ll immediately feel familiar.
If Kena Bridge of Spirits is the first effort from Ember Lab, I absolutely cannot wait to see what their next endeavor brings.
Kena Bridge of Spirits: The Bottom Line
- Gorgeous animation both in-game and in cutscenes
- Combat system that drastically grows and improves
- Rewarding exploration that feels natural
- Heartfelt story that tackles tough material gracefully
- A few frustrating boss battles that don't measure up to others
- Some obtuse puzzle design that can be tough to figure out
Kena Bridge of Spirits is a magical adventure, even if it doesn't do anything entirely original. Its elements tie together well, and it's jaw-droppingly gorgeous on PS5.
It hearkens back to the days of PS2 platformers in all the best ways, and despite a few small issues, it stands out as one of 2021's best titles.
[Note: Ember Lab provided the copy of Kena Bridge of Spirits used for this review.]