Kena: Bridge of Spirits caught my attention at the PlayStation Future of Gaming event back in June 2020 but then the game sort of vanished from the scene until very recently when the launch trailers came out. It is a Third-Person Action-Adventure game with a few Metroidvania elements thrown into the mix. Luckily I was able to secure an early copy of the game, and as is with every other indie game I play, I booted up Kena Bridge of Spirits with an open mind and without sky-high expectations, not knowing about the epic adventure that awaited me, and by the end of this 10-12 hour experience, I was left with nothing but praise for Ember Labs’ first indie game outing.
The game starts as you take control of Kena in a dimly lit cave. Kena lights the dark cave around her with spirit energy, symbolizing how this journey is one of discovery and revelations for her as much as it will be for you. Kena is a spirit guide tasked with guiding troubled and lost spirits across the realm. She is trying to help as many lost spirits as she can while making her way to the shrine at the top of the mountain for her own personal reasons, which are unknown at that time.
Kena will meet a cast of interesting characters on her journey, and each spirit she helps will have its own backstory and other characters associated with them. The cutscenes are done in a way where they convey a lot of expressions and details in a very short amount of time. They are similar to what the Overwatch shorts felt like. The voice acting for all of these characters, especially Kena, is absolutely on point and filled with a lot of emotions. Kena’s VA, Dewa Ayu Dewi Larassanti, did a fantastic job considering it was her first attempt at voice acting for a video game character.
With this basic premise explained, we set foot outside the cave into a lush and colorful forest. The world and visuals created by Ember Labs really help in making this an amazing experience. Everywhere you look, and each location you go to is surrounded by beautiful vistas. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an open-world game where the world is divided into sections. It is all seamless, and there are no loading screens even when you transition back and forth between gameplay and cutscenes. There is a village in the center of the map that acts as a central hub. Kena will visit all sides of the map as the story progresses, but all of it is connected to the village, so you could also call it the Bridge that connects different areas of the map.
The world feels even more alive because of how it reacts to your presence. Kena can use an energy pulse whenever she wants, and wind chimes and trees react to her energy. Whenever you enter a new area, it is mostly covered in corruption and muted colors, indicating the presence of something sinister. But you get this satisfying sense of progression as you clear out the corruption from an area, and everything becomes vibrant and alive again. You can also Warp (Fast Travel) between discovered Warp points which makes exploring previously discovered areas very easy.
You can freely explore previously cleared parts of the map and hunt for any remaining collectibles or statues in those areas as enemies do not respawn when you backtrack to previously visited areas. There is no cluttered Hud in this game to take away from the immersion offered by the vibrant open world. Another strong aspect of the game that further enhances the overall experience is the exceptional Soundtrack composed by Jason Gallaty, who is also known as Theophany on YouTube. Each region of the map has a different soundtrack complementing the environment and setting of that region.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits does not take any risks with its approach to gameplay and overall mechanics. All of the mechanics and gameplay loops used here have been seen time and time again, implemented across different adventure games. The puzzles are very interesting and engaging, especially in the latter part of the game when more mechanics have been introduced. There is nothing groundbreaking here, but they have implemented the basic mechanics in a way where the game does not feel boring or repetitive at any point. Kena’s main weapon is her Staff which she uses for light and heavy attacks. Later on, she gains a bow and bombs, which she can use both to navigate around puzzles and in combat. The bombs can make certain rocks float in the air, which makes for some fun puzzles.
Kena can also befriend Rot. They are friendly minions who follow you around and help in moving heavy objects. The rot can also be utilized in combat to have a few more moves up your sleeves. The more rot you recruit, the more actions they’ll be able to perform. How often you can use them in combat is also dependent on their numbers.
Combat here relies on hit and dodge tactics. This is something that does not change throughout the game and becomes a bit boring later on. Kena usually has to wait for her enemies to finish attacking and then move in for a few combos. After that, it’s the standard affair of rolling around and waiting for your turn again.
The game does a decent job of introducing new enemy types to keep you on your heels and to make the whole combat cycle less repetitive, but all of these enemy types can be taken down with the same button mashes. I found myself defeating most of the mini-bosses using only heavy attack spams.
There is a very basic upgrade tree for you to unlock, but those upgrades don’t really increase your arsenal. They just unlock additional damage and range for existing attacks. The developers could have flushed out the combat a bit more by introducing a more complex upgrade tree or maybe let Kena learn newer moves as the story progresses. She only learns 2 new things throughout the game, which is a bit underwhelming, to say the least.
The main boss encounters in this game are very interesting and become increasingly difficult as you progress the story. Each of the main bosses has a distinct personality and is based on that personality. They use different movesets and weapons. They can be a bit tricky to deal with if you go headfirst into combat without reading their moves first, especially on the higher difficulties. Most of the mini-bosses you encounter and defeat become regular grunts from that point onward and add to the different enemy types you’ll encounter out in the open world.
You can tell that the developers were able to properly execute their vision by the overall quality of the game and the fun things added, like the reactive photo mode where Kena and her rot companions react to the camera whenever you take a screenshot. Not only them, but the characters you meet are also photogenic as they too pose, smile, and look at the camera, which is a neat little feature.
You can also equip your rot companions with different hats that can be purchased from Hat Shops scattered across the valley. You can earn money for buying these hats by restoring fallen shrines, looting chests and baskets, and exploring the areas. I believe that this game will help them secure better deals and perhaps collaborate with bigger studios to create even better games in the future for the next generation of consoles.
I reviewed Kena: Bridge of Spirits on PC while playing it on the maximum graphical preset and the game looked and performed well enough. I did encounter frame drops here and there, but they were most noticeable for a few seconds when the game transitioned back and forth between cutscenes and gameplay. The game did not crash for me even once during my 10-12 hours with it, which is always welcome seeing how poorly some companies optimize their pc ports these days.
Considering this is the first game Ember Labs have ever made, I’d say they have done an excellent job overall in every department and made an extremely fun and memorable game. My only major gripe with the game was its lacking combat and upgrade tree, but I’m sure if Ember Labs ever made a sequel to this game, those departments will get buffed up quite a bit.