When it was first unveiled during the PlayStation Showcase last year, Kena Bridge of Spirits was easily one of the best looking games shown on a night that was all about the hype surrounding the PlayStation 5, and while it’s rough around the edges, Ember Lab’s first game is definitely something to behold.
What Is It?
If you’re unfamiliar with Ember Lab, no worries–they’re literally located within a townhouse in Southern California comprised of just a few people. These folks know animation, and they love great games. Look no further than this viral video of a deeper fanmade introduction to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask that Ember Lab designers are responsible for, and you’ll already have an idea of what kind of talent we’re dealing with.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is easily one of the best looking games you’ll ever play. Starring the titular heroine, Kena, the game follows the spirit guide on her quest to help guide the deceased from the physical world to the spirit world while cleansing the physical world of evil in the process.
Why Should I Care?
When a game looks as good as Kena does, you wonder about whether or not it’ll actually play well and for what it is, Kena is about as polished an experience as you can get. The problem is questionable gameplay decisions make it feel out of date. It’s also extremely challenging for a game whose plot carries itself like a kid-friendly Dreamworks adventure.
While good games in their own right during their time of release, I liken Kena to games like Jak II and the Ratchet & Clank games on the PlayStation 2. They’re solid, but even if you give them a facelift, they don’t essentially feel modern anymore. The world in Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a lush and sizable world begging to be explored, and while it’s definitely enjoyable, the decision to not have a waypoint system works to its detriment. People can make the case that this was done on purpose to give the game an old-school feel, allowing players to really think about the paths they’ll take in a seemingly non-linear open world, which it isn’t. I thought I’d be able to get over this quickly, but there was a point around the first half of the game where I walked around for two hours before realizing all I had to do was shoot two crystals to open a door, but it wasn’t immediately obvious that I could even interact with them. If it took me that long to figure out, I can only wonder what it would be like for someone that requires a little more options for accessibility–not to mention since I was playing the game before release, it’s not like I could get help anywhere. The lack of a hint system in the game made it even more rough.
That’s where Kena comes hot with another eyebrow-raising gameplay decision–the game is pretty hard, especially its main bosses. Instead of going off on the game’s difficulty, I’ll question the thought process here. This isn’t a Platinum game or something developed by Hideki Kamiya with difficulty in mind. This is a game that looks like it’s for kids. The lush and colorful world, the friendly female protagonist, the cute little Pikmin-like “Rot”–is it really supposed to be kicking my ass? Fortunately, you can humble yourself and bring the game down to easy, but when you do that, it becomes way too easy. A better job could’ve been done balancing out the gameplay here, but don’t get me started on the fact that one of the trophies in the game requires you to beat it at the hardest difficulty mode that requires you to have already beaten the game once to unlock it. That’s just mean.
These rough blemishes aside, as I mentioned earlier, there’s quite a bit of polish here. Melee combat in the game is extremely fluid, the platforming is fine, and shooting Kena’s bow is beyond satisfying. On top of that, aside from the issue I had aimlessly walking around for a couple hours, the exploration and Zelda-esque puzzles were enjoyable and had just enough “a-ha!” moments to keep me smiling, and that’s indicative of pure enjoyment.
That pure enjoyment comes from all the love and care put into this project. The transitions from gameplay to cutscenes are damn near perfect, and it features just enough gaming foolishness to make it even more fun. I mean who would’ve thought you could so easily turn a magic staff into a bow? Kena: Bridge of Spirits presents itself with so much enjoyment.
Every reviewer, including myself, gushed about how good the game looks, but it’s really the entire presentation that stands out. From the voice work to the soundtrack filled with original work from Theophany which includes traditional Balinese composition; it all just ties in really well to give the game a more authentic feel and makes its lush environments stand out more. The presentation is just a perfect symphony of complimenting features.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
If this game was developed and published at a bigger studio, there’s absolutely no way this game would only be $40, but here we are. Yes, the game has quite a bit of issues that really prevent it from being put in with 2021’s cream of the crop, but the value is definitely there. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is one of the best looking games you’ll ever play, and if you can find your way around its old-school feel and difficulty, you’ll probably make yourself a fan of Ember Lab and look really forward to what they put out next. This was their first game, and that makes it all the more impressive. If there’s a Kena 2 coming, and there really should, I’ll be all over that.
Editor’s Note: The reviewer currently works with a former member of the game’s animation team (Kalen Chock). The game was announced well after Chock’s departure, so we’ve deemed that there is no conflict of interest.