A powerful spirit lingers and corrupts the world and a young spirit guide tries to follow in her fathers footsteps to help those who remain to move on. As the two collide it becomes clear it’s not as simple as it first seems in Ember Labs action adventure — Kena: Bridge of Spirits.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a third person action adventure with a healthy mix of puzzle solving, RPG elements and challenging combat in a beautiful world inspired by eastern mythology and architecture. It’s also a standout production by Ember Lab; who you may recognise from their acclaimed Majora’s Mask fan animation — Terrible Fate
Little information is given on how Kena ends up in her current predicament but it’s clear she’s been tracking a fairly powerful spirit on her path to a mountain shrine. Those who choose not to move on into the afterlife however don wooden masks to represent their new form and exist to finish tasks or unfinished business with the adverse effect of corrupting the land.
Uncovering a string of interconnected events around a corrupted village from which the spirit hails, Kena sets about helping those trapped whilst uncovering the secrets around her powers and the people the spirits left behind. Stumbling into your first quest fairly quickly it’s also early on that you make your first (of many) magical friends — the Rot. Small, black, furry creatures not dissimilar to Pikmin who assist Kena with all manner of tasks.
Eye-catching would be the understatement of the year when it comes to the visuals on offer in Kena: Bridge of Spirits. It’s absolutely beautiful and really shows off the power on offer with the PS5 or a comparable high end PC. Every blade of grass, every tree branch and forest stream is exquisitely represented as a living breathing world with some great use of lighting to set the mood.
Entering the Forgotten Forest for the first time around thirty minutes in, Kena braves a storm whilst tracking a wisp-like memory. As the rain beats down and Kena cautiously navigates the dark wood; the lightning flashes dramatically through the foliage. It’s at this point Kena: Bridge of Spirits starts to set itself apart from last gen titles.
The rain on her skin, the wind in the trees and the boom of the thunder, theatrically creating an atmosphere that’s difficult to replicate outside of cinema. Not only that but transition between active play and cinematic cutscenes is a simple shift of camera, the engine shines even more here as focus is placed on the specific script rather than player initiated actions. It wouldn’t be out of place in a Disney/Pixar film, it’s that impressive.
New abilities are introduced at a steady pace and you get just long enough to start to master each before Kena learns another. The team over at Ember Lab have done a great job of making each new area technically more challenging and intricate than the one before, requiring players to find new ways for Kena’s powers to interact with each other to progress.
Kena’s staff isn’t just for show and combat is fairly straightforward but enemies can be quite challenging especially in groups. Instead of an overwhelming variety of attacks, Kena: Bridge of Spirits alters the approach to your adversaries such as where weak points are located and the chaining of abilities in order to reach them. Quick attacks combo together into a chain with a more damaging finisher, heavy attacks react in a similar manner but are extremely cumbersome to the point where many enemies will move out of reach before they get the chance to land.
The land you travel is fairly vast and 20 hours in, as a completionist, I was surprised at how vast it was in addition to the variety on offer between the various areas. The map can help guide you and gives a rough indicator on the location of your next objective but that often isn’t as simple as it first seems and you are left to investigate ways to reach or progress at fairly regular intervals.
Although the map shows warp points, hat shops and your general location it shows little else leaving you to hunt high and low to locate any collectables or the Rot hidden in each area.
And hunt you will for the adorable little mites. Most of your abilities will be needed, if only at the basic level, to unlock all of the Rot. You can find them hiding everywhere but after a while it starts to become fairly obvious what you are looking for to locate them. That said, several per area can be pretty challenging to either obtain with challenges connected to adding them to your collection.
Each main area is initially blocked and opens as the narrative unfurls; usually sub areas are also only accessible once a specific part of the quest is completed but sections of the village will only be unlocked as you locate “Spirit Mail” hidden within the world. Posting one back at its recipient’s mailbox, the barriers are destroyed and the village starts to return to some semblance of normality as you destroy the blight that has corrupted it.
Progressing through the story relies on Kena resolving several memory based missions to unlock magical gates blocking your path forward. As you progress, Kena learns more about each lost spirit through flashbacks and conversations with other characters. Each sub narrative introduces new characters, mostly to create some depth around the tragedy, grief and mourning which has corrupted the spirits you seek to assist.
It’s well done, not overly heavy and connects you with your target and the characters around them but it does little to connect you further to your own character. It’s a chance missed to tie Kena’s history and backstory into the style of gameplay and progression that Ember Lab have so delightfully crafted for the rest of the cast.
A beautiful journey through grief and loss, Kena: Bridge of Spirits demonstrates the potential of next generation gaming and establishes Ember Lab as one to watch. An interesting story, great environments and tough combat compliment a solid premise that isn’t tarnished by an alternative combat approach.