(Spoiler Free Review)
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an action adventure game starring the titular character Kena. Something has thrown the world off balance and spirits are lost in the chaos. The lands are covered in corruption and poisonous growths that manifest plant like entities looking to spread and consume. Usually spirits make their way to the next life, but when they struggle with their pasts, they linger and become dangerous additions to the corruption.
Spirit guides are masters that help trapped and violent manifestations move on. Kena is one such guide on a journey to visit the Sacred Mountain Shrine. On her way there she is greeted by a malicious spirit that warns her to leave. Now that you are all caught up, we can dive into this much anticipated game.
For anyone wondering, it is pronounced Kay-na, as said by Kena herself
Throughout my playthrough of Kena, I constantly had this feeling like I was playing a classic PlayStation 2 game like Jak and Daxter. Something about it feels strangely familiar, from Kena’s movement to the world she explores. I experienced a sense of nostalgia whilst playing an entirely new game from a studio’s first attempt at making a full-fledged console game. This game could be a remake of an old game that no one had ever heard of, and it would not have surprised me. There is clear inspiration here as many elements are recognizable from Zelda, Uncharted, and the previously mentioned Jak and Daxter. I guess this should come as no surprise considering Ember Lab created the Nintendo respected and recognized Majora’s Mask fan film, Terrible Fate, in 2016.
Kena is a much anticipated new game released on the PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, and PC. I experienced the game on PlayStation 5 but will also be checking out the PlayStation 4 version since it was included, which is a plus to me. Many were drawn to Kena straight away (as seen in the Kena Trailer Talk episode) due to its eye-popping Pixar / Disney movie quality visuals, which many thought was a movie at first. There is a good reason for that as the studio that developed Kena is actually an animation studio. This is their first-ever console game! Kena is breathtakingly gorgeous to boot. Many of the character models and environments are stunning to look at, and it is easy to forget you are playing a game as you make your way through various environments that breathe with life and vibrancy.
What does a Spirit Guide Do?
She Kicks Ass!
Assuming the role of Kena, you will battle various enemies with your magical staff and multiple abilities and techniques you learn throughout the game. Combat feels pretty solid (once you get the hang of it) as you pick up new abilities, which leads to a sense of growth to the character. Early on, you meet these small cute little creatures called The Rot (a physical embodiment of, you know ..rot).
You, as a spirit guide, befriend the Rot and use them in various ways to progress, and they act as a level-up system as you collect more. This symbolizes the cycle of death and rebirth as the Rot have the ability to clear out the decayed remains and sprout new life and vegetation.
In most combat scenarios, you will be clearing out enemies with the Rot’s help; they can bind enemies or charge up attacks. You will then use the Rot to purify infected Deadzone hearts and clear the corruption.
Conversely, the Rot are disgustingly cute, and you can interact with them in equally cute ways. You can even dress these little fuckers up with hats and masks that look like a cake, or mushrooms or freaking cat ears, talk about cute on cute...anyway. Then you can hang out with them and take a break from combat while you watch the Rot play and lay around in various pots and shelves nearby.
Combat gets frantic and riveting as Kena does an excellent job of teaching you how to “Get Good”. You start with a basic attack, heavy attack, and block. Eventually learning new abilities like parry, bomb, and my favorite, the bow as you face new enemies that make you use all of your abilities. The enemies vary from your basic and laughably easy imps to “Holy Crap! I barely survived that fight,” Wood Knights. I played on normal difficulty and often found myself getting through fights by the skin of my teeth where one more hit and I’m dead. I also struggled to get the timing of the parry abilities, which when done right, can be a lifesaver. Some of the tougher enemies will really push you, such as a wizard type who can throw fireballs and spawn smaller enemies. Then as you are dealing with those, that bastard has healed himself!
Some of the boss fights ramp up the difficulty as well, requiring you to really think, “OK, what have I not tried on this SOB,” making you really use your head. Granted, if you want a more peaceful experience, there is an easy difficulty, as well as a few harder ones. I personally felt like a badass when I got through a tough fight utilizing the best of my abilities.
More like Adventure Guide
Exploration is a big part of the experience, and you are rewarded for checking every inch of the map. You will find hiding places for the Rot to add to your army of deadly cuteness in every nook and cranny. Collect blue shards that act as currency to buy more ridiculous hats for your Rots to dawn and meditation spots that will slightly increase Kena’s health with each one. A lot of these are found climbing intricately placed hang ledges and navigating some puzzling platforms. There are a few parts where you have to swim, which can be some of the most grueling parts as (unlike most games) Kena cannot jump or sprint in water. You know, like real people. So you have to find exit points for any given body of water you find yourself in.
Along the way, you will need to clear corruption and purify small shrines using what’s called a Forest Tear. Forest Tears temporarily restore the Rot to their original form; they can attack enemies, destroy barriers, and clear said corruption. Forest tears only appear after certain fights or when you find seeds (magical seeds that are hidden nearby to grow a Forest Tear) and add it to a growth point. Along with finding Rot, hats, and shrines, if you love collecting stuff or have OCD like me, then this will be your bread and butter. The map screen shows how many of each collectible is in an area, so you can see when you have found them all. Often, areas will be inaccessible until you have learned certain abilities or found spirit mail, so expect to backtrack. Oh right! Spirit mail are keys to homes in the village that allow you to access them and clear out the corruption in a mini-dungeon-esque fashion. Several locations can only be opened this way in the main village and add a little extra to the main goal.
Finding your Path
As for the story of Kena, it is surprisingly minimalist and very much told through context and cut scenes of the few characters you run into along the way. You know very little about Kena at the beginning of the adventure, but like any great mystery, you are left wanting more. You meet various spirits who lived in the overrun village and help them deal with the tragedies that befell them. The Rot are at the core of the events, which along with the spirits, give off a very Hayao Miyazaki vibe and feel.
You learn more about the inhabitants and their unique stories more than anything. From a separation of siblings to the leader of the village’s struggle with the eventual loss of his people. All of which is presented in beautiful cutscenes that definitely tug on some heartstrings, but never to the point of being depressing. It does a good job of keeping it all very light-hearted. Kena strikes a perfect balance of just enough story to fuel the excellent exploration and exciting combat. In many modern games, it seems like the cut scenes never end and I find myself rolling my eyes and saying, “all right! I get it, LET’S GO!”. I never had that issue during my time with Kena and truly enjoyed the longer cutscenes when they happen, which never go longer than a few minutes. Ember Lab seems to understand that all good things should come with moderation.
Spirited Beats to Guide to
Music is a big part of the experience of Kena, and it has an amazing soundtrack composed by Theophany. If you are a music fan, spend the extra 10 bucks on the deluxe edition to get the digital soundtrack; thank me later. Now that being said, the music in itself is a character as it helps build the world and the setting. As you explore, you will hear the music swell as you come on new and stunning vistas. During cutscenes and fights, your heart will pound to the action or the emotions. The music, much like the visual style of the game, seems to borrow from a mix of New World elements and various Asian influences.
If you, like me, got the Deluxe edition on PS5 that came with the Kena soundtrack, here is a note for those that do not know. The soundtrack is intended to be copied to an external drive such as a USB thumb drive or external HDD. You can then copy the files to your PC for your listening pleasure.
Let’s See Your Smolder
Think yourself a photographer; Kena has you covered with its photo mode. Which, for an indie game, is extremely clever and offers a lot of features, so you can get just the right shot at the right moment. Photo modes are becoming massively popular, allowing fans to be virtual photographers and Kena’s lets you pause the action at any time during gameplay and pick the aperture, focus, format, and various filters too.
The Bad and the Beautiful
With all that beauty, there are a few issues. In my time with the game, I experienced a few technical glitches, such as falling through the world, button commands not working as intended and running into areas you can't leave, and getting stuck. Most of these issues came when I was looking for collectibles and going places you normally wouldn't go. Such as jumping into that river of death, assuming you will die, but you don’t for some reason, then you can get back out of it. This is where autosave and careful manual save are important. Kena’s walking and running animation also often stutters from time to time, which never really hindered gameplay but is distracting and makes you think she is stopping for no reason.
None of these hindered my experience, and I was able to play through the game without any fatal crashes or restarts. The only other issue I faced, which no one else I know has, was some audio issues. I also suggest turning the music volume down a notch or two as it can drown out the dialogue during some cutscenes.
Kena Bridge of Spirits is a stunning visual feast as well as truly fun to play. A few technical issues and game world flaws do not hold it back but keep it short of perfect. It seems that another one is likely, and I look forward to the further spiritual exploits of Kena. If we had a standard review score system, I would give Kena 8 out of 10 Soup Bowls, or 85 out of 100 Couch Soups, or 4 out of 5 Couches. I don't know, something that would hopefully help you know, it is really good. You should play it.
Have you played Kena or do you plan to play Kena? Let us know in the comments