When things look good, it can mask some of the deficiencies that can slip beneath the surface. Yet, when you are required to spend a significant amount of time with something, those cracks will appear regardless. Ember Lab’s Kena: Bridge of Spirits seems to have found itself falling into this category, with the studio’s debut effort providing a visual feast for the eyes, even as it stumbles somewhat around gameplay and storytelling.
From the start, it is clear that Ember Lab’s background in the world of animation has served it well. From the character designs to the realising of the lush greenery of the world, every moment in Kena: Bridge of Spirits is breathtaking. Our heroine Kena is instantly likeable, with her facial expressions and movement brought to life particularly well with the animation work involved.
The same goes for the irresistibly adorable Rot, little sprites that are always good for a camera moment and probably the next big mascot to hit the videogame world. Other characters you will meet along the way are also amazingly detailed and alive, as are the surroundings around you.
It is not always that the music of the game is so outstanding, and the scoring and sound design of Kena: Bridge of Spirits is pure audio bliss, as every moment is punctuated with melodies that soothe or excite, conveying the right emotions for every occasion.
As a spirit guide tasked to aid spirits in moving onto the next life, Kena is on a mission to find a sacred mountain shrine. Discovering corruption that is perv ading the land, it is here that we join the journey to save more spirits and restore the world to its pristine condition. It is a functional plot, but it is within this framework that some magic begins to sprout throughout Kena: Bridge of Spirits.
With a large, semi-open world that consists of several different regions to explore, Kena: Bridge of Spirits gives players a level of freedom while staying linear in the gameplay design. Essentially, each area requires the collection of specific items, a few fights here and there, before you get an upgrade to open up more of the world.
It’s a standard formula, but enhanced by the overall presentation of the activities that Kena will engage in. Each area is inhabited by a corrupted spirit in need of saving, and through your exploration and efforts, you will begin to learn more about who these people are, meet others close to them, and understand what is needed to achieve salvation for the spirit. It is akin to enjoying a fully realised tale with its own flair in each and every area.
A caveat to note is that although players are brought deeper into the stories of these spirits, Kena herself, unfortunately, does not get the same treatment when it comes to her background and history. There are snippets here and there, but it is never enough to fill in all of the gaps. Considering what a wonderful protagonist she is, this is a waste, and hopefully, Ember Lab is able to remedy this in one way or another.
When you are in the business of pacifying spirits and guiding them on, combat will inevitably be part of the equation. Despite the seemingly straightforward setup, combat in Kena: Bridge of Spirits is anything but. The frenetic pace might be a surprise, while at the same time requiring a level of strategy and precision that belies its more charming style.
Kena can unleash both light and heavy attacks, with ranged attacks being added to your arsenal in due time. When enemies attack, you can either dodge out of harm’s way, or attempt to shield and parry using magical energy. While this foundation may have some thinking that it is all there is, things start getting more interesting further on.
The Rot will play their part during combat, but only after you help build up their courage. At the start of every fight, these cute fellas tend to run and hide, but as you defeat more foes, you can start accumulating Courage, which inspires the Rot to lend a hand. They can bind enemies and prevent movement, help with crowd control, or in some instances, become a more destructive force with some elemental assistance.
Once more varied enemy types join the party, then the combat in Kena: Bridge of Spirits starts to show more of its undeniable appeal. With the solid foundation of moves, players will have to quickly integrate some strategy when dealing with more powerful foes in increased numbers.
Managing the use of Courage will become increasingly important, and it could be the difference between surviving and perishing. Kena can suffer quite a bit of damage when hit, and if you have to choose between using the Rot to cleanse healing flowers or to lock down an enemy, it can be a tough situation to be in.
Mastering everything will be important, especially when facing the bosses of Kena: Bridge of Spirits. Even on normal difficulty, these fights will test your mettle every single time. The way the music works to build the mood, the dangers posed by these creatures, and having to fight tooth and nail to win is a perfect end to the different arcs in the game.
Aside from the engaging combat, Kena: Bridge of Spirits also paves the way for a robust collection of platforming, exploration, and puzzle-solving to keep things fresh. It is clear that Ember Lab did not want players to be dwelling on the same activity for too long, creating a loop of different mechanics to keep you going.
For those seeking the secrets of the world, you might find more collectables in the form of cosmetics for the Rot, hidden or cursed chests, or Spirit Mail, which will unlock more areas for Kena to see and understand her surroundings. Of course, you can also find more Rot hiding around the world, and the more of these creatures you collect, the more abilities you can use during combat.
You can bolster Kena’s attacking abilities with upgrades with accumulated Karma, such as adding dashing attacks or a counter following a successful parry. You can even slow down time while aiming or find new ways to utilise Courage. Although not every upgrade is going to make a significant difference in terms of combat, it helps that you have the option to change things up.
For a debut effort, Ember Labs has certainly outdone expectations with Kena: Bridge of Spirits. Sure, the simplicity for some parts of the game may not be appealing to all, but its amazing visuals combined with great combat, world design, and the other delightful components of Kena’s adventures make for a swell time. For a game that will take about eight to ten hours to complete, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a journey well worth taking for everyone.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
A captivating blend of awesome combat, exploration, and worldbuilding, Kena: Bridge of Spirits goes beyond superficial simplicity and establishes an excellent foundation for Ember Lab.
Gameplay - 8/10
Story - 8.5/10
Presentation - 10/10
Value - 9/10