Kena: Bridge of Spirits caught my eye at the PlayStation Future of Gaming event in June 2020, but the game kind of faded from the scene until recently, when the launch trailers came out. This is a third-person action-adventure game with a few Metroidvania elements added to the mix. Fortunately, I was able to get a first copy of the game, and like every other indie game I play, I started Kena Bridge of Spirits with an open mind and no sky-high expectations, not knowing 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 release.
The game begins when you take control of Kena in a dimly lit cave. Kena illuminates the dark cave that surrounds her with spiritual energy, symbolizing how this journey is a journey of discovery and revelation for her as much as it will be for you. Kena is a Spirit Guide tasked with guiding troubled and lost spirits through the realm. She tries to help as many Lost Spirits as possible while making her way to the mountain top shrine for her own personal reasons, unknown at the time.
Kena will meet a group of interesting characters on her journey, and each spirit she helps will have their own story and other characters associated with them. The cutscenes are done in such a way that they convey a lot of expressions and details in a very short time. They are similar to what the Overwatch shorts felt like. The voices of all of these characters, especially Kena, are absolutely relevant and filled with a lot of emotion. Kena’s VA Dewa Ayu Dewi Larassanti did a fantastic job considering this was her first attempt at voice acting for a video game character.
With this basic premise explained, we set foot outside the cave in a lush, colorful forest. The world and visuals created by Ember Labs really help make this experience an amazing one. Everywhere you look, and every place you go is surrounded by beautiful vistas. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an open world game where the world is divided into sections. Everything is transparent and there are no loading screens, even as you transition between gameplay and cutscenes. There is a village in the center of the map which acts as a central hub. Kena will visit all sides of the map as the story progresses, but everything is connected to the village, so you can also call it the bridge that connects different areas of the map.
The world feels even more alive because of the way it reacts to your presence. Kena can use a pulse of energy whenever she wants, and wind chimes and trees respond 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 that satisfying feeling of progress when you clear the corruption out of an area, and everything becomes vibrant and alive again. You can also Warp (Fast Travel) between discovered warp points, making it easier to explore previously discovered areas.
You can freely explore previously cleared parts of the map and search for any leftover collectibles or statues in those areas, as enemies do not respawn when you return to previously visited areas. There is no crowded 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, 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 takes no chances with its approach to gameplay and general mechanics. All the game mechanics and loops used here have been reviewed time and time again, implemented in different adventure games. The puzzles are very interesting and engaging, especially in the latter part of the game when more mechanics were introduced. There is nothing revolutionary here, but they implemented the basic mechanics in such a way that the game never feels boring or repetitive at any point. Kena’s main weapon is her staff which she uses for light and heavy attacks. Later, she gains a bow and bombs, which she can use both to navigate puzzles and in combat. Bombs can make certain rocks float in the air, which creates fun puzzles.
Kena can also befriend Rot. They are friendly minions who follow you around and help you move heavy items. Rot can also be used in combat to get some extra moves up your sleeves. The more rot you recruit, the more actions they will be able to perform. How often you can use them in battle also depends on their number.
Combat here relies on strike and dodge tactics. It’s something that doesn’t change throughout the game and gets a bit boring afterwards. Kena usually has to wait until her enemies are done attacking, then move around for a few combos. After that, it’s standard business to ride and wait 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 entire combat cycle less repetitive, but all of these enemy types can be taken out with the same buttons. I found myself defeating most of the mini-bosses using only heavy attack spam.
There is a very basic leveling tree to unlock, but these upgrades don’t really increase your arsenal. They simply unlock additional damage and range for existing attacks. The developers could have flushed out the combat a bit more by introducing a more complex leveling tree or perhaps let Kena learn new moves as the story progresses. She only learns 2 new things throughout the game, which is disappointing to say the least.
The main boss encounters in this game are very interesting and get more and more difficult as you progress through the story. Each of the main bosses has a distinct personality and is based on that personality. They use different sets of moves and weapons. They can be a bit tricky to deal with if you go into combat without reading their moves first, especially in the higher difficulties. Most of the mini-bosses you encounter and defeat become regular grunts from this point on and are in addition to the different types of enemies you will encounter in the open world.
You can tell the devs were able to properly execute their vision by the overall quality of the game and the added fun stuff like the responsive photo mode where Kena and her rot mates react to the camera whenever you take a screenshot. . Not only them, but the characters you meet are also photogenic as they too are posing, smiling, and looking at the camera, which is a cool little feature.
You can also equip your rot companions with various hats that you can purchase from the hat shops dotted around the valley. You can earn money by purchasing these hats by restoring fallen shrines, looting chests and baskets, and exploring areas. I think this game will help them get better deals and maybe work with bigger studios to make even better games in the future for the next generation of consoles.
I reviewed Kena: Bridge of Spirits on PC playing it on the maximum graphics preset and the game looked and performed quite well. I encountered some dropped frames here and there, but they were more noticeable for a few seconds as the game transitioned between cutscenes and gameplay. The game didn’t crash for me even once during my 10-12 hours with it, which is always welcome considering how poorly some companies optimize their PC ports these days.
Considering this is the first game ever made by Ember Labs, I would say they did a great job overall across all departments and made a game that was extremely fun and memorable. My only major gripe with the game was its lack of a fight tree and leveling up, but I’m sure if Ember Labs were to make a sequel to this game, those departments would be improved a bit.