*checks the date * Wait a second… Hasn’t this one been out for a couple of months now? Why review it now? Right, this game did come out at the end of September. But both we and the guys at Ember Lab have been a tad too busy lately, so we only just got our review key a couple of days ago. And why think about it this much? A new rise in COVID cases is upon us, and we’re all in quarantine ’cause we’re either sick or too afraid to be. At the same time, the first sales of the year are live on the PlayStation Store, and if you want to make a gift to yourself or a loved one, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is one of your best choices. Hear me out:
TL;DR – 8/10
|You’ll love it if:||Probably not for you if:|
|– You’re looking for a fresh take on the action platformer genre||– You want a challenging gameplay loop|
|– You’re into the cartoon-esque aesthetic||– You’re looking for a game that’ll keep you hooked for hours on end|
|– You always wanted to have an otherworldly adventure on a magical forest||– You’re either Team Xbox or Team Valve|
|– You’re trying to build an army of adorable little creatures|
First of all, let the record show that I went into this playthrough completely in the blind. I haven’t read/watched any other reviews, everything I know about Kena: Bridge of Spirits is based on the promotional material and its presence at The Game Awards. To be honest, I think this game should have been bigger than it actually was. And what I mean is, if you’re not an enthusiast, the only way you’d know about this game is through the ads on the PlayStation Store. Exclusivity is often a double-edged sword. And Ember Lab decided to lock Kena both on PlayStation and on the EGS. And I think this game is too good to have such a limited audience.
I’m sure you must be tired of reading this on reviews, but the visual presentation really is one of the major selling points of this game. We’ve officially entered the period where more and more games start to fully take advantage of next-gen hardware capabilities. Therefore, every game looks pretty great, and whichever manages to stand out does so in terms of style. And Bridge of Spirits has plenty of that to go around. If I had to describe it, I’d say it is an amalgam of dreamy worlds from classic Studio Ghibli films and characters from Disney cartoons. It’s mysterious, welcoming, and clearly influenced by Japanese culture.
A work of art
Honestly, the most impressive part is how well all the pieces of the world fit together. Landscapes, skyboxes, characters, the Rot, the magical powers: they all seem to come from the same outlandish world, and that’s harder to put together than it sounds. The lighting is one of the key elements in every game, and in this one, it deserves some overtime pay because it’s so good. It sets the mood on each level, and in combination with the frequent changes of backgrounds, gives the feeling that you are really making progress in the game. You never stay in one area of the forest for too long.
Kena’s adventure is short and to the point. From the depths of the forest you to the abandoned village and from there into the dark caves. Bridge of Spirits is a game that you can’t get bored of looking at, really. The forest makes you feel at ease, the story really plays out like a fairy tale. There are many things to see in the forest, but not enough for you to lose your way.
The cutscenes are made in partnership with an independent animation studio and they really look like they came out of a feature film. But, as impressive as the cutscenes look, even on the PS5, I noticed some stuttering, and it made me think that they were, at times, running at a different framerate from the rest of the game. However. the whole game is unexpectedly polished. Ember Lab consists of only 15 people. And yet, bugs, just like loading screens are almost non-existent. It’s genuinely impressive. If you’re playing on the PS5, Fidelity Mode is preferable for this type of game.
Kena and the minions
The developers have spent a ton of time designing Kena and that’s immediately noticeable. The design of the character is relatively simple but it’s easily recognizable: exactly what you need for a leading character. The animations are very detailed, although a bit repetitive sometimes. Bridge of Spirits is designed as a “weekend experience” however, so details like that will bother few people. Facial expressions match the light-hearted nature of the game. Not only does it look like a cartoon, but sometimes you feel like you interacting with one.
Kena’s faithful companions are her staff and the Rot, the adorable little black creatures she recruits on her journey. At first glance they look like the Minions from Despicable Me, only they’re much more useful. Unlike their yellow cousins, the Rot are an integral part of Kena’s world and not just something tacked on last minute. The magic from her staff looks incredible and completely in-character for the forest aesthetic. You’re supposed to be wandering about in a magical forest and fighting spirits, and that’s exactly what this feels like.
Not all fairy tales are about princesses. Some just have strong, independent female role models. You love to see it, really. This push of strong, non-sexualized female protagonists that began with Crystal Dynamics’s Tomb Raider and matured with Aloy and Senua, now culminates in a new wave of heroines like Kena. Especially in games like Bridge of Spirits that may appeal to a younger audience, setting standards is very important. And Kena can be a good character for our little friends to look up to.
Guiding the spirits
In Kena’s enchanted forest live the spirits that can’t make their way to the afterlife. The heroine’s job is to help them solve the problem that keeps them tied to this world and help them find peace. Bridge of Spirits feels like an anthology of seemingly unrelated stories that have been masterfully linked together.
We jump into the action immediately, without needing any kind of lengthy introduction. We start exploring the world around us by interacting with it. The plot is quite simple, but its meaning is in the moving episodic stories that the game has to tell. The themes that the Ember Lab touches on are very important: the relationship of humans with nature, the feeling of separation, the fear of final decisions, and the consequences of your actions. The characters indirectly tell you their problems and you must not only put yourself in their shoes but help them solve them as well. At my age, Bridge of Spirits feels like a next-level therapy session. It helps you heal wounds you didn’t even know existed.
Have you ever binged through a game?
Bridge of Spirits is a game that is made to be finished in a couple of days. And this is something I appreciate. I loved Guardians of the Galaxy for the same reason. There’s no checklist of objectives here to distract you from a very tailored experience. There’s only the main story, and although it consists of many smaller ones, there’s no random side-quests to take away from that experience. This is a short, enjoyable but at the same time moving adventure, which will make it very difficult for you to put down the controller. And this is what makes it feel special.
Growing up, you realize that you have so many games in your collection, but so little time to actually play them, so a game that you get through quickly and leaves you with an unexpected smile on your face is something to cherish. At the same time, the younger ones will enjoy a special story that will be as memorable as their favorite children’s movie. When you’re young, you look forward to the next chapter of your favorite games, but sometimes what made them special is that they did not have “more than necessary”.
Well, we can’t have everything now, can we? Gameplay is the weakest point of this game. It does not have any particular depth and does not present great difficulty either. But it’s far from boring, it’s actually quite enjoyable getting through the levels. At least by my own standards. Hey, it’s a platformer, okay? I didn’t see anyone saying Ratchet & Clank was boring, so Kena definitely isn’t either.
Jumping through the forest
Bridge of Spirits is an action platformer. What does this mean; you will spend most of your game time jumping from one level to another, solving various puzzles and riddles. The platforming has a good flow and helps in highlighting the sights of the forest. Puzzles are not difficult and it’s not often you’ll get stuck in one for a long time. All you have to do in most cases is use Kena’s staff and magic abilities to open up a path. What makes things even more exciting is that the Rot you collect are actively involved in your journey, helping you solve some of the more elaborate puzzles.
In essence, everything is based on the smart use of the tools at your disposal. Even if you get stuck, as soon as you solve the puzzle you’ll think to yourself “how did I not think of that earlier?”. Everything is quite straightforward but pushes you to use all the mechanics provided by the game.
Once again, the gameplay simply takes you from one part of the story to the next. And the trip is beautiful, but it’s not what will impress you. It’s hard to make a 3D Platformer that is not boring, at least for my tastes, and I can’t say that I found Bridge of Spirits to be repetitive. Its short and sweet nature helps it in that regard.
According to the plot, the spirits that have can’t move on from this world and haunt the forest and attack unsuspecting travelers. Our job is to fight them and show them the way to the afterlife. If Naruto did it for 700 episodes, Kena can definitely pull it off for a weekend. So Kena’s staff is her best friend. At first, we only have melee attacks but as we go, we upgrade our staff to a magic bow, which increases gameplay variety, something that’s always welcome.
The battles are not super complicated, but they’re definitely very satisfying, and that’s the most important thing. More often than not, you’ll end up having a button-mashing fireworks show. Boss fights on the other hand, although smaller in number, raise the adrenaline and it’s quite easy to get knocked out if you are not careful.
The music of Kena: Bridge of Spirits is another of its high-quality elements. The mysterious instrumentals that play as you explore the forest are reminiscent of Fable’s golden age. And I miss Fable so much. It’s a fairytale soundtrack, really. Makes you feel like you’re watching your favorite children’s movie. It fills you with nostalgia, I can’t pinpoint the feeling. The building of intensity in the exploration, the calming pauses as you think when solving the puzzles, the adrenaline in the boss fights. The music incredibly dresses up the aesthetics of the magic forest. Most of all, however, it proves that a capable studio, even without an AAA budget, can deliver a AAA experience.
The sound effects are just as good. They attribute the intensity of the battles and the calm of the forest elaborately. Not everything needs to be over the top, and fortunately, the guys at Ember Lab seem to understand this perfectly. What impressed me is the exceptional sense of space that the soundscape gives you. Using any stereo headset with Sony’s Tempest3D, the forest wraps around your ears, along with all its inhabitants. It truly is a very pleasant experience.
Voice acting is not the best, unfortunately. Kena’s voice actor does a decent job, bringing the heroine to life, but I can’t say the same for the other characters. It’s not bad, it just isn’t as good as the rest of the audio department. I spotted a small problem with the mixing, where the voices in the cutscenes, were drowned out by the music and effects, but I’m not sure if this is a general issue, or I was the only one that encountered it.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a very beautiful, albeit short, experience. This game is a fruit of the developers’ passion and that’s obvious in all of its aspects. It builds a wonderful fantasy land, fills it with beautiful life lessons and dresses it in fairytale music. If you want to compare it, it reminded me of Ori’s great world-building and story, combined with gameplay inspired by traditional Ratchet & Clank games. If you have two days to relax, away from work or school, this game is one of the best ways to spend your weekend.
It’s a time where we see more and more independent studios proving what they can do with passion and love for their craft as their only weapons. And Ember Lab has done a terrific job here. We need more dynamic female protagonists like Kena in gaming. We need more games like Kena: Bridge of Spirits.
We’d like to thank Ember Lab for providing the review copy we used!