Released on the 21st of September 2022, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an action-adventure game with criminal levels of cuteness and enough heart to win over any fence-sitters. Because this review will disclose, although Ember Lab could be the new kids on the market as far as game development goes, with Kena: Bridge of Spirits they have were able to create a polished project that stands confident and proud, showing very little signs of being a first attempt for making a game. Even if the game doesn't land towards the top of your Bet on the entire year list, this is a title that will not fail to perhaps you have grinning for the right reasons.
Ember Lab, Brewers of Magic
Ember Lab is a relatively small animation studio that has been around for some time and it has several projects under its belt to show off. Their interest in gaming can be seen in one of the best animated short films titled Majora’s Mask which, because the name may suggest, is definitely an imagined prequel to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Using stunning visuals and audio quality, Majora’s Mask provides a fan theory of methods the Skull Kid acquired the Majora Mask.
Unsatisfied with merely making short movies about game titles, Ember Lab takes a initial step in to the gaming world with Kena: Bridge of Spirits. First revealed in 2022 during a Sony Playstation showcase, the sport garnered itself a lot of attention for its stunning visuals similar to a high-quality children’s movie. Featuring alongside titles like Ratchet & Clank and Horizon: Zero Dawn, Kena: Bridge of Spirits contained optimistic promises of the items the next generation of gaming would look like.
Understandably, there have been lots who were instantly enchanted through the world of Kena: Bridge of Spirits. At first glance, all trailers and promotional material make it appear like a Pixar movie you can play. Although Ember Lab tried to reign in expectations, every snippet of gameplay that was released before the game’s launch only heightened hopes for the little indie title which was fast gaining a cult following.
Not only was Kena presented as an enigmatic spirit guide, but she was shown being followed around by an army of black fluffballs cute enough to make the Minions look uninspired. Pre-release gameplay trailers revealed that in addition to lush, explorable environments, Kena could platform along sheer mountains like your favorite Uncharted game. As if using a cool glowing staff is not enough, additionally, it transforms right into a magical bow. It all sounds too good to be true.
Naturally, there was a fair share of skeptics to cancel out the optimists prior to the discharge of Kena: Bridge of Spirits. Many were wary of putting an excessive amount of faith into a small studio developing their first game. There are enough reasons throughout gaming history to maintain a level of healthy cautiousness. Wise minds knows not to be blinded by hype even if you have fluffballs as cute as the Rot enticing you.
With the release of Kena: Bridge of Spirits, however, not only have Ember Lab proven themselves as above competent creators, however they also have crafted probably the most enchanting games in recent memory.
The Story of the Spirit Guide
Kena: Bridge of Spirits focuses on Kena, a and spunky spirit guide with a zest for helping others. She's on a quest to clear the forest of corruption and restore nature to the previous order. To get this done, they must help some troubled souls overcome traumas that keep them tethered to this realm.
This, in typical gaming fashion, involves knocking their lights out, but it also requires you to find out more about these pained spirits and the tragic stories that have caused them to become monsters. The narrative, for the most part, is presented in a simplistic manner with cutscenes that are light on dialogue and leave your imagination to fill in the missing pieces concerning the stories from the characters you discover.
Joining Kena on her behalf adventure are adorable black fluffballs referred to as Rot. The Rot are an interesting subversion from the concept of decay, that is a indisputable fact that typically fills one up with disgust and revulsion. Instead, the Rot are irresistibly cute, and you'll never tire on your mission to collect them all. The Rot function as companions to Kena, but they also fulfill an important purpose. It's the Rot who cleanse the forest of corruption, clearing everything old and stale to make way for new, green life.
The Rot are an ever-present source of levity inside a story that may get quite grim because it handles themes of death, grief, regret, and trauma. However, similar to a cutesy Pixar movie, none of these topics are handled in a way that would disturb any child present. Instead, they're navigated tastefully and woven into a fairytale-esque story that never does not draw you in because it expertly paces its light and dark moments.
A Visual Feast
Part of why the story lands so solidly is because of the stunning visuals the game presents. During cutscenes where you truly see the studio’s roots in animation. Cutscenes are a top-notch, movie-quality affair, with the Rot becoming the cutest brand mascots since Pokémon.
Lighting effects are very important to Kena and the aesthetics from the game, and they're expertly managed. In the glow of Kena’s staff to the blue light her protective pulse emits, light is handled inside a realistic fashion also it appears to naturally bounce from the environment. This adds an extra magical effect in scenes inside caves where reflecting light illuminates Kena’s doll-like, smooth face. Environmental lights are also superb, and breathtaking scenes of crepuscular rays breaking through the forest canopy are never too much away.
While on the subject from the game’s environments, it would be remiss to not mention how gorgeous the settings of Kena: Bridge of Spirits are. Regardless if you are taking a look at grey caves illuminated by magical blue flames or mountainscapes that keep an eye on quaint villages, every iota around the globe is picturesque eye-candy. Although mostly linear, there are plenty of opportunities that you should veer off the main trail and explore nearby scenery to locate any stray Rot, collectibles, or beat down a couple of enemies.
The environments play a huge role in setting up the mood from the different story beats, especially due to how dynamic the different settings are. A contented skip through a bright green forest quickly turns dark and ominous once you enter a shady segment where the grass is dead and corruption coats everything. When the Rot clear it, and new life can flourish, the greenness from the flora that grows reestablishes that cheery feeling once more.
The cartoonish art style the game uses appears to infuse the ineffable, enchanting elements of Studio Ghibli films with the animated dynamicity of bouncy Western cartoons. The result is an immersive fantasy world that unfailingly fills you with childlike awe and ceaselessly presses you to definitely explore every nook and cranny it presents.
On PS5, which was the version used for this review, Kena: Bridge of Spirits provides a Quality Mode which outputs at native 4K, 30FPS. On Performance Mode, it provides upscaled 4K at 60FPS. I'd nary a frame drop to locate, and after toggling between the two modes, there is not much visual impact on be viewed between Quality Mode and gratifaction Mode. On PS4, Kena: Bridge of Spirits runs at 30FPS at 1080p. However, the PS4 version is not able to display all 100 Rot on your screen at once.
A Soundtrack That Captures the good thing about Bali
As the voice actor has discussed, recording for Kena’s soundtrack took place in Bali. Hence much of the soundtrack features Balinese music and Balinese instruments. This results in the game using a unique soundtrack while you explore the forest. It is an earthy one which elicits a relaxed, almost zen-like feeling.
In a gaming landscape where most games slap on some orchestral music and call it a day, it is extremely gratifying to determine a studio try something truly different. The soundtrack compliments the game’s tone perfectly, and it seems to ramp up in intensity in the right moments whenever a heated combat session is underfoot.
Enough cannot be said about the Rot, and the cute purring noises they create. It is something similar to a cheerful cat, and it feels unfair to possess a lot cuteness in creatures so small. If Ember Lab is attempting to use cuteness to sell games, it is surely working.
If there's one criticism that can be made, it's that sometimes, Kena’s voice acting could be a bit soft and unimpactful. You do occasionally wonder if this is accomplished intentionally to mirror Kena’s mostly gentle personality, but it does appear as if her lines were delivered inside a weak fashion.
Unassumingly Gripping Gameplay
Previews of Kena: Bridge of Spirits happen to be somewhat comical with regards to the range of games which have been used like a comparison. Some have compared Kena: Bridge of Spirit’s combat to God of War, while some have compared it to Dark Souls.
In reality, it would be unfair to lessen Kena: Bridge of Spirits to a facsimile associated with a other game. It is obvious that it draws inspiration from sprawling, wanderlust-filled Nintendo adventure games like Legend of Zelda, and it mimics the close-up combat offered by most Sony first-party exclusives. However, Kena’s gameplay ultimately is unique and fleshed out, providing an event that is tough but fair. It takes accuracy, consistency, along with a keen eye for seeing the weaknesses of your enemies.
Having begun the sport in the hardest difficulty available on the very first playthrough, I was lulled right into a false feeling of confidence through the relative ease of the first area of the game. It did not take very long to obtain the hang of parrying, and many from the tinier grunts can be dealt with utilizing a few light swings of Kena’s staff. However, upon encountering brawnier enemies that could end my run in two hits or less, it became obvious that the game does require some focus.
The bigger bosses are well-designed both visually and in terms of their combat. They have weak points, will enter different phases, have move-sets with tells, and can respond to you and also dodge. Aggressive yet disciplined gameplay is greatly rewarded.
Assisting you against foes are the Rot. However, they are an easily frightened bunch. Hence, you'll have to collect Courage during battles to be able to coax them out. Once you have gathered enough Courage, your Rot can be used as various moves that can hinder or hurt the other players. The combination of the Rot into combat ensures that you really value these cuties, and it encourages you to keep hunting for more Rot to add to your army.
Between moments of intense combat, you will find puzzle segments that aren't too mentally taxing but are satisfying to solve. They are available in the type of some light platforming as well as some environmental puzzles that require your Rot friends to help you out.
Is Kena: Bridge of Spirits a Masterpiece?
Perhaps the biggest criticisms that can be waged at the game must be fond of gameplay. Firstly, during combat, there is a lot of unnecessary screen clutter which comes by means of enemy health bars and a reticle that can't be removed. In an age where plenty of games can be played with a clear, HUD-free screen, it feels archaic to possess enemy health bars going swimming that cannot be turned off.
Additionally, Kena’s animations could be a little stilted sometimes. Her transition from walking to running is a touch abrupt, and she lacks climbing animations and reactions to her environments. Swimming is yet another small chore, with Kena moving as if she's wading through molasses whenever she's in water.
All the above mentioned complaints are mere nitpicking, however, and are caused by being spoiled by big-budget games. Remembering that Kena: Bridge of Spirits is made by a team sufficiently small to suit right into a bachelor apartment puts into perspective what a feat the game is.
While it would be an exaggeration to call Kena: Bridge of Spirits a masterpiece, it cannot be understated the amount of a monumental achievement the sport is. No more is the fact that special formula of magical storytelling combined with Hollywood-tier presentation restricted to a few AAA studios. Ember Lab has proven that there are indie teams able to competing – and thriving – in that space.
Lastly, it needs to be mentioned how fairly Kena: Bridge of Spirits is sold as a consumer product. Ember Lab has promoted the game as a smaller title from the tiny indie group, and they have priced it accordingly. However, it only takes a few moments with the game to understand that you are handling a high-quality product where no corners happen to be cut.
Whether it is the photo mode using its delightful poses, or Kena’s ability to take a time-out in the action and meditate together with her Rot buddies, the quantity of detail and polish on-show would fool you into believing this is a release from a recognised studio. At a price point of $40 for that standard edition, Ember Lab is offering a pretty enticing value proposition, even taking the game’s short length into account.
It is startling to think that one of the best games of the year originates by means of a title that appears like something you would placed on to amuse kids for any morning. Yet Kena: Bridge of Spirits boasts more heart and genuineness than many games could hope to exude. What Ember Lab has produced is really a rejuvenation of the indie market, proving the little guys can box using the best. For anybody looking for a game which will bring a smile for their face, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is not to become missed.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is available on PS4, PS5, and PC.