Kena: Bridge of Spirits Review

September 27, 2021
Also on: PC, PS5
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Finding early success with a gorgeously animated Majora’s Mask fan video, Ember Lab has now fully entered the gaming industry with Kena: Bridge of Spirits. In this action-adventure title, you’ll join the titular spirit guide as she seeks to restore harmony to nature by helping ghosts pass on to the next plane. With abilities to acquire and dungeons to puzzle through, there are a number of lofty (albeit lazy) comparisons to be made — but as a timed console-exclusive for Playstation, could this finally be an answer to Nintendo’s mighty Zelda series?

Sometimes it’s nice just to soak it all in.

Starting with a crystal-embedded staff, Kena can send out pulses of light to activate ancient mechanisms, or project a force field around her. From these humble(ish) beginnings, over the ten hours that Kena: Bridge of Spirits has to offer, she’ll gain new abilities to dash through portals, draw arrows of light, and levitate debris into new formations. She’s also joined by cutesy fuzzballs known as the Rot — think the Kodama from the Nioh series crossed with My Neighbour Totoro’s soot sprites — who can be used in combat or to solve puzzles; the more you collect, the more actions you can unlock for them. Whilst commanding the Rot (Pikmin-style) to move heavy objects and dismantle blockages is a fun way to interact with the world, simply having them scuttling around your feet and zooming in on their goofy gesticulations is a gift in itself.

Puzzles and platforming are a main feature here, with crystals needing to be activated in sequence with Kena’s light, and floating platforms to double-jump your way across (an ability which you start the game with, a boon for anyone who’s felt slighted by similar games making you spend XP to unlock such a fun move). Early challenges don’t amount to much more than target shooting, but once you unlock new powers, the core gameplay opens up a lot. Platform sections have new urgency and complexity with a bomb which suspends platforms in the air for a few seconds, meaning you’ll have to raise up one section, make your way across it, and then raise another few platforms before the existing ones crumble back to the floor. It’s a neat addition to Kena’s skill set which combines well with the crystal activation puzzles — adding pressure to a sequence of events which would be a lot more straightforward without a timed element. 

If it’s blue, you should probably shoot at it.

There are three main chapters to Kena: Bridge of Spirits, each of which have a lost soul at their heart. Unwilling to move on, they need to be reunited with relics of personal significance, after which they can come to peace with their lot in life. To gather these relics, Kena will travel far and wide, battling with goblins, golems, and ghosts, alongside hectic boss battles. I have to say, the chapter-ending showdowns were a welcome surprise after a rather plodding introduction to the combat: fighting standard enemies is repetitive button-mashing with little difficulty or even dodging involved, but this becomes slightly more exacting as you progress to larger enemies and mini-bosses. Exploiting weak spots, mastering your parry, and weapon choice is of greater importance by the end of the game, but those starting enemies never fully disappear from the world. The boss characters on the other hand, tied to story beats, feel distinct and powerful: your battle arena is transformed by technicolour explosions of clashing energy waves and glowing weapons.

These are complemented — as much of the game is — by cutscenes of pure eye candy, which could be lifted from a full-length animated movie. Kena herself is a bit bland, befitting of the generic story, but supporting characters and enemies have interesting designs drawing from multiple folklore and legends. The art style overall is stunning, with naturalistic in-game movements and expressions making Kena: Bridge of Spirits a joy to play. A tap on the D-pad seamlessly opens a robust photo mode to capture your favourite moments, which is a big improvement from the mode often being relegated to a pause menu. Minor stutters are infrequent, and the fast load screens (even on the PS4 version) means you don’t have to worry about the faff of dying and waiting to be deposited back at a checkpoint; all in all, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a visual wonder.

Photo mode lets you appreciate the enemy designs at your leisure.

These technical achievements do come at a cost though. The sizable open world of Kena: Bridge of Spirits ranges from arable tranquility to inhospitable ice and fire biomes, and is uniformly beautiful to take in. Despite this, it feels disappointingly empty for much of the adventure. There’s a central village which you return back to after completing each chapter (using helpfully placed warp points), but even this hub area feels flat and uninteresting. The occasional treasure chest can be interacted with by pressing a button, but the simple joy of smashing pots and boxes doesn’t have an outlet here, despite existing in spades as background objects. 

This down-to-earth design expands to exploration; invisible walls often keep Kena on a linear path, preventing you from straying out of bounds, or even just trying to get a good look at a piece of interesting scenery. I’m surprised at myself here — not being a massive collectathon advocate, I didn’t realise how noticeable the discouragement of that playful spirit would be. Some simple extra tasks can be found, such as returning a statue to its plinth, or carrying out some target practice, but they’re broadly distractions rather than ‘content’.

A limp story is always made better by good-looking cutscenes.

If this is the dawn of a new adventure series, then hopefully we’ve now got the familiar origin story out of the way. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a visual feast with some good ideas up its sleeve, and is more than worth a look at the ten-hour main game — but without a more rewarding world to explore, and with the often repetitive combat encounters, it stops short of being the next big thing (just yet).

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Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ stunning visuals and fantastical abilities are weighed down by repetitive combat — and a world with more to see than to do.
Matt Jordan

I first met all three generations of the Blazkowicz family in the 1990s, and we stay in touch to this day. A fan of trippy comics, genre-heavy storytelling, and the IMDB trivia pages. I’ve never beaten that level where you ride an ostrich in Sega’s The Lion King game.