Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the first game from Ember Lab, an indie outfit that up until now was best known for its work in animation. This bit of info might come as a surprise due to just how beautiful and polished it looks, but it will make sense the moment you embark on your adventure as a Spirit Guide looking to restore balance to a troubled land.
And that is because each of the characters you meet, from Kena to the adorable little Rot creatures you can call on for assistance, feature subtle and impressive detail that can only be described as emotive. From eyes to mouths you can get a sense of a character’s emotional state by simply watching them move. This might be a strange thing to highlight, but in terms of the type of vibrant classic Zelda-like adventure Kena: Bridge of Spirits presents it’s a rarity. And a very welcome one.
The expressive and impressive animation flows through to the action, not only selling each hit and wondrous effects-filled magical parry, but ensuring that it all flows with a precise and fast-paced feel that is immediate and engaging. The second half of the picture is the gorgeous forest and village setting, where corrupted regions are presented in a mix of reds, charcoal, and de-saturated foliage. Cleansing the world from decay is a key part of the flow, clearing combat arenas returns small pockets back to their natural state. In addition to helping troubled spirits find their way.
Each of the characters you meet, from Kena to the adorable little Rot creatures you can call on for assistance, feature subtle and impressive detail that can only be described as emotive.
The Zelda comparison for an action-adventure is well worn, and as a baseline we never use it as an indictment or criticism. In relation to Kena, the “well worn” side might be the best way to sum up how it plays. Here you get large areas to explore, though progression and environments are mostly linear. The scope feels more in line with a film than a sprawling episodic open-world jaunt. Now, you could take that as saying it’s relatively short compared to most modern titles that feature this level of sumptuous detail -- but Kena hearkens back to a time when games took about a dozen or so hours to complete.
With that the structure here is mostly familiar, from boss fights to environmental puzzles to new abilities and skills answering that age-old question ‘How do I get over there?’. There are secrets to find, treasures to discover, and little Rot creatures aplenty to befriend and command. That side of Kena definitely stands out, the Rot can be used during combat in addition to moving objects around to clear or make a path. The more little dudes you collect the more skills you get to unlock, and before long your staff will double as a magical bow, hammer, and dispenser of sticky bombs.
You could take that as saying it’s relatively short compared to most modern titles that feature this level of sumptuous detail -- but Kena hearkens back to a time when games took about a dozen or so hours to complete.
For the most part it’s intuitive, except when you take direct control over the Rot as they form a singular magical creature used to clear away decay. Weirdly, you have direct control over Kena and the Rot, leading to a slightly confusing and clunky system that might have been better served with Kena frozen and you simply being in control of the Rot for a bit. There are other moments in Kena that are similarly ‘slightly off’, which probably points to the somewhat small and inexperienced team at the helm.
Going back to the animation, the various cinematic sequences peppered through the adventure are wonderful, though it's a testament to the entire experience that the actual gameplay carries a similar tone and feel. From the voice acting to the soundtrack the presentation is impressive, with the story itself dealing with a wide range of themes that parallel things we all experience in the real world -- albeit heightened in a way that this style of fantasy does so well.
With all of that you might be wondering where Kena: Bridge of Spirits falls short. It’s not that it plays like a game from a different time, the overall design and flow is both time-worn and engaging -- it’s just that in certain areas it begins to feel a little disconnected. Secrets and treasure mostly come in the form of cute little hats for your Rot and the blue-crystal currency to buy more hats. So, the incentive to explore isn’t really there from a thematic or discovery context. We wish there was more finding spirits and restoring the village stuff as opposed to chests bursting open with a currency you never feel like you actually need.
It might be a strange way to phrase things, but Kena suffers from feeling too much like a game for a game’s sake. The latter third is essentially a string of linear levels with puzzles and boss fights, so much so that by the time the climactic confrontation rolls around it affects the dramatic tension the story has spent several hours slowly building towards. It’s by no means bad, or anything close to that. Instead, you get the feeling that much like commanding the Rot to prop up a fallen statue the experience itself is given the very same vibrant animated lift based on how it looks.
What we liked
Gorgeous art direction and animation
Wonderful presentation and thematic story
The little Rot are all adorable
Engaging combat and action-adventure setup akin to a classic Zelda-style game
What we didn't like
Clunky when controlling the Rot and Kena at the same time
Feels a bit simple during the latter stages where it's a string of puzzles and boss battles