We've spent some time with Ember Labs enchantingly beautiful debut title.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits really blew us away when it was shown a little over a year ago. Just like when Overwatch was shown, Pixar movies immediately popped into my head and Kena was even better looking. There and then, it felt like Kena was the game that would truly illustrate what the PlayStation 5 was capable of. Today, the console has been out for almost a year (although availability is still an issue for many) and for those who have picked up the console at some point since then, the wait for Kena: Bridge of Spirits has been long and unbearable, lined with multiple delays. Now it's finally here, but the question is whether it's more than a pretty face?
Just as the title suggests, Kena is the game's main character, a young girl who helps the dead solve unfinished business that prevents them from stepping into the life that awaits them after death. Early in the adventure, we come across a village deep in the deep forest. Abandoned, yet not. For it is teeming with ancient little spirits who are also trapped here. Equipped with her magic staff, it's your mission as Kena to help them in a world made grey and dull by decay, and where unpleasant spirits stand in your way. The narrative is fairly simple and rarely goes off the rails, but for a game aimed at children and adults alike, the narrative is satisfying nonetheless.
In terms of narrative, however, not everything is perfect. For starters, the cutscenes are pre-rendered and run at only 24 frames per second. This is something that I personally found really annoying when the game offers a performance as well as resolution option. If you then go from playing the game in performance mode, which delivers 60 frames per second, the cutscenes feel choppy and often uglier than the actual gameplay. In addition, several of the voice actors don't do a particularly good job, with several sounding monotonous and just reading lines straight from the page, completely lacking in empathy.
Unfortunately, the game's shortcomings are not limited to the narrative, but to some extent the combat as well. The system is fairly simple and reminiscent of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order where you can strike light or hard blows, parry or dodge attacks. Eventually, you also learn additional abilities. At first, the battles feel completely pointless and it's more than enough to hammer the button to kill the enemy. There's also a lack of clear feedback in battles, and I often feel like I'm just waving my staff in the air. Much of the problem stems from the fact that the sound is so substandard that it simply makes for some lame battles, with enemies (or Kena, for that matter) barely making any sounds whatsoever. At times it becomes a little too obvious that this is Ember Lab's debut title and that they've previously been involved in animation work, not video games. Also, the battles don't feel particularly advanced and although I tried turning up the difficulty, I didn't find it resulted in better battles. Often the amount of enemies is very small, giving you plenty of room to eliminate each threat at your leisure, and often the battles feel like an excuse to add some variety.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits also comes with a few too many bugs for it to feel acceptable. Some of them, such as a bug that made it impossible to remove a mask that locked the game, have already been addressed by Ember Lab, but even after a new update was released, some bugs have interfered with my gameplay. For example, on two occasions I got completely stuck when I opened a chest and had to reload my save file, and on another occasion I got stuck in a sort of slide and was thrown into the air when I pressed the jump button. It's certainly not a bugfest we're talking about, but they're enough to bother me and it seems to vary considerably how prevalent they are for players.
At this point you might be thinking that this must be a really bad game, but that's not the case. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is certainly not a bad game, don't get me wrong there. Because where the game really delivers, beyond the graphics which are brilliant, is the exploration. It's rare that games make me want to discover everything there is to find, but thanks to this big, beautiful world, you want to solve every puzzle there is. Also, there are plenty of other secret things to find in the game and it often pays to revisit locations later only to be able to access that previously unobtainable treasure. The design is utterly exquisite and makes it hard not to want to pick up every little stone there is. It really pays to take your time and look around to find a puzzle to solve that can later help you along the way. This fairytale landscape is teeming with spirits in need of your help and treasures just waiting to be found. These can then be used to unlock upgrades for battles as well as cute new headgear for your black companions.
Often very reminiscent of the older golden nuggets of the Nintendo 64 and Nintendo Gamecube such as The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask and Star Fox Adventures, Ember Labs may not be doing anything new with the genre but it still adds a unique touch. With three difficulty levels to choose from, the game is well suited for both younger and older players. As mentioned earlier, I'm not entirely sold on the battles, but arguably they are more challenging if you choose the harder options. However, at a time when very few lavish games like this are being released, it's well worth your time, regardless of age.
In the end, I'm still somewhat disappointed with Kena: Bridge of Spirit. Bugs and mediocre combat are my main problem, but nevertheless I had a lot of fun with Kena and her cute Rot companions. Considering this is Ember Labs' first title, they've delivered a game that feels like a promising start to their gaming career and I look forward to seeing what they come up with next. Considering the price tag is a little kinder on the wallet than many other games for today's consoles, you also get a heck of a lot of content for the money with an adventure that stretches around ten hours, depending on your play style.
7 / 10
Wonderful graphics, incredible design, entertaining story, lots to explore, well-balanced level of difficulty.
Mediocre voice actors, some bugs, half-hearted combat system.