Kena: Bridge of Spirits Review: A Winning Experience
Not every game we play can be overly original or provide a brand new experience. There’s nothing wrong with taking well-worn elements and executing them well. There is a danger in this, though, that a game can end up feeling bland. Thankfully, that’s never an issue for Kena: Bridge of Spirits.
Little in Kena will surprise players. Most everything done here has been done in other popular titles in recent years. In some ways, it’s even a bit old-fashioned, hearkening back to the days of PS2-era action platformers. Thankfully, Kena does almost everything well and has a ton of personality too. Everything really comes together to create a game well worth your time.
Kena is a Spirit Guide, a person who helps spirits in turmoil pass on from her world. On her way to a mountain shrine said to be a place of power for the spirit world, she stumbles upon a small village filled with regret. The people are mostly gone, and rot and corruption fills their former homes and the forests around them. If Kena wants to make it to the shrine, she’ll need to help those whose spirits still linger to find peace.
Apparently, finding peace involves a lot of hitting them in the head. While Kena’s methods seem a bit questionable to me, they’re undoubtedly entertaining and effective. Each new spirit requires you to first find three items from their life that tether them to the land. You’ll then use those items to summon them, and the hitting commences.
Your Adorable Rotten Companions
Along the way, you’ll explore beautiful forests, dark caves, high mountains, and even the spirit realm. Corrupted spirits of the forest stand in your way, as do a variety of minor puzzles. You’ll also meet a group of adorable sentient Rot creatures who join your team. These little guys are possibly my favorite thing about Kena. You’ll find a single Rot early on, but eventually, you’ll be trailed by a miniature army.
Rot aren’t only there to look cute either. They play an active role in almost every element of the game, almost like a more limited version of Pikmin. They’ll carry items, grab resources, open crates, and help shut down the Rot itself. You’ll come to rely on them for a lot of what Kena needs to accomplish.
One of my favorite things about these magical sprites is how they move around the world, often vanishing and appearing in front of you, lounging around and waiting for you to catch up. I loved walking into a new area and seeing them hiding in crates, sitting on roofs, lining up along the water. You can customize these characters, too, unlocking new hats to trick out your little guys. This is purely cosmetic, but you can customize what every one of them wears and I spent quite a bit of time getting the hats I found cutest.
Moving around Kena’s world isn’t the most complex thing, but it feels excellent. You start with a pretty limited set of moves, but they expand a great deal as you progress in the game. New abilities like a spirit dash, and a bomb that can reverse time in a localized area open up a great deal of options and let you reach areas that initially seem impossible to get to. There’s a lot of vertical climbing which feels right out of the Uncharted series, down to ledges you can grab being marked by white lines.
Puzzles are generally clever enough but never overbearing. They require you to make full use of your tools, though. The couple that briefly held me up hid the clues to solving them right in the environment, which I really appreciated. Few players will get really stuck, but you do have to use your brain at times, and some platforming sections require you to think fast or fall behind.
Help The Spirits, By Kicking Their Butts
New abilities open up combat as well. One of the first upgrades you’ll find is the ability to use Kena’s staff as a bow, something that actually quite surprised me but which I found tremendously cool. Arrows allow you to more easily target flying enemies and also to target weak points on those on the ground as well. Bombs slow enemies down and are actually required to kill one type. Your dash provides the only way to hit one type of spirit enemy.
Of course, the Rot play a role in combat as well. They’ll be needed to finish most encounters, but you can also deploy them to heal Kena or to hold up bosses. For example, an early encounter against a fast-moving enemy seemed challenging until I realized I could have the Rot hold him in place while I whacked away. Rot can also enhance many of your attacks once you unlock the power-ups needed to do so, making them even stronger.
Combat is simple at its core, but it feels good. Kena has a basic attack and a heavy attack, which is highly useful at times. A dodge roll gets you out of danger in a pinch, and you also have a shield that can parry attacks if timed right. Early on, it isn’t really that necessary, but later on, you’ll be glad if you’ve been practicing with it.
That’s especially true against bosses. Kena throws a wide variety of bosses at you for a game of this length, and they all have a rather unique feel. While the first few are fairly easy, later foes can be quite difficult, especially if you don’t have the parry timing down. Most bosses have several stages as you get their health down, requiring you to stay on your toes and not fall into one strategy. These encounters are memorable, with the final battle being a real highlight which tests every skill you’ve spent the game perfecting. If things get too tough for you, Kena offers a variety of difficulty options.
Often my biggest gripe ended up being the camera. It’s not bad. There was a time when I would have killed for a camera like this, but it can often be a bit touchy when you’re in corners, and certain platforming sections were a pain due to it. A move where your Rot take on a spirit form you control separately from Kena, in particular, gave it trouble at times.
A Beautiful Journey
Kena’s story can be truly moving, but I wish it spent a bit more time on Kena herself. As you help each spirit, you’ll dive into their lives and the connections they made to this village. Those they loved help them move on in a deeply moving way. Fantastic voice acting and a moving score set the stage. While each of these spirits is explored in depth, Kena never really is. For much of the game, we don’t learn much about her and while a few sequences late in the game went into her history a bit, I wanted more. She’s a super likable protagonist. Hopefully, if we get a follow-up title, more time will be spent digging into her history.
Collectibles are spread everywhere, reminding me of the sort of experience we used to get in games like Jak & Daxter. You’ll find extra Rot, hats for those Rot, currency to use those hats, another currency to unlock new moves, locations where you can meditate to expand your health bar, and more.
It’s worth taking a moment, however, to point out how truly stunning this game is. The characters and world look like some sort of cross between Pixar, Studio Ghibli, and Studio Laika. Developer Ember Labs started as an animation studio, so this isn’t terribly surprising, but they’ve done fantastic work. Characters are highly expressive and adorable. The Rot will almost certainly find continued life in the form of plush toys. The environments are full of detail, and the lighting is fantastic. On PS5, you’ll find options for both performance and fidelity mode. I played on performance where I found the game maintained a consistent 60 frames per second.
I’ve mentioned a lot of other games throughout this review. Uncharted, Jak & Daxter, Pikmin, I could name a few more too. While not a lot here is fully original, almost everything is well-executed, and when you add an excellent story and a ton of personality, you have a winning experience. Although there are a few minor issues here and there, Kena: Bridge of Spirits provides a wonderful base that we can only hope future games will build on.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PS5 (Reviewed), PS4, PC; Publisher: Ember Lab; Developer: Ember Lab; Players: 1; Released: September 21st, 2021; ESRB: E10+ for Everyone 10+; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: A Kena: Bridge of Spirits review copy was provided by the publisher.