Kena Bridge of Spirits takes players on a striking journey alongside the titular protagonist in this stunning action-adventure. Full of beautiful locations and vistas to explore, platforming, and a variety of skills to take down your foes with, you’re aided by the cute-as-a-button and mysterious forest spirits, The Rot.
Developed by indie studio Ember Lab, the team was originally founded as an animation studio, creating both commercial work and film. With Kena Bridge of Spirits, however, the team seeks to add its own flair to the gaming space and the tried and true action-adventure, and it’s full of everything one would expect from the genre.
With a Pixar-like art style and storyline of self-discovery, Kena Bridge of Spirits’ unique visual style makes up for some action that’s a little by the numbers.
Kena Bridge of Spirits key details
- Price: $39.99/£32.99 (Standard Edition) / $49.99/£39.99 (Deluxe Edition)
- Developer: Ember Lab
- Release Date: September 21, 2021
- Platforms: PlayStation / PC
Kena Bridge of Spirits trailer
Tried and true gameplay features in a beautiful world
As a Spirit Guide, Kena has the gift of helping trapped spirits safely cross over into the afterlife. With staff in hand and some gorgeously animated skills, no time is wasted in getting you right into the action.
Wandering through mysterious, shadowy caverns to discover what lies beyond, Kena is armed only with the Pulse skill to light her way, literally (and also comes in handy as a shield and action button) and her trusty magical staff as you attempt to stave off enemies.
Upon exiting the cavern and wandering out into the daylight, Ember Lab’s Pixar-esque art style really takes hold. With lush forests and true technical excellence when it comes to intricate use of lighting, character design, animation, and physics, it’s hard not to be sucked in by the obvious care and love that the team has put into crafting its fantastical world to explore.
While beautiful, it also doesn’t particularly break the mold, however, and it’s a common theme that runs throughout the core of Kena’s gameplay loop.
While exploring this forgotten land and uncovering its secrets and the story that lies within, flashes of déjà vu of similar themes from the likes of Disney’s stories such as ‘Brave’ ran through my mind – with a protagonist that’s trying to discover herself and shape up to the past of her powerful Spirit Guide father, right down to The Rot that serves as the game’s main novelty and comic relief.
Despite this theme, the overarching motivations and backstories of many of the characters are quite slim, and the pieces of information we are fed as the narrative unfolds feels somewhat underbaked. Particularly in the case of Kena — we don’t actually know that much about her, other than that she’s a Spirit Guide that has ventured here to discover a mountain shrine — almost everything is incredibly surface level and lacking in depth.
- Read More: All Rot and Hat locations
The cute little forest spirits, The Rot, are introduced to players very early on. Ember Lab has created a mascot in its own right that easily contends with the likes of Baby Yoda, Minions, or Pikachu, and it’s hard not to let out an audible ‘aww’ whenever you see them. You’re even able to stop, sit down, and interact with them while they dance around you, sneeze, or give you a little kiss.
Photo Mode also acts as a cute integration here, perfect for taking photos of these adorable critters. With the inclusion of a ‘Cheese ‘feature, you’re able to cycle through a variety of poses that affect both Kena, The Rot, and even story NPCs!
Kena Bridge of Spirit’s stunning art direction, coupled with The Rot and Photo Mode act as a perfect distraction for some of the gameplay’s more generalized moments of traversal and combat, providing enough whimsy that will keep you chugging along as you uncover the world with your merry band.
Linear combat mechanics in Story Mode
The world isn’t only full of beauty, though. Very early on you’ll come across Deadzones: areas of the map that have been corrupted by negative spirits struggling to move on. Here, you’ll be tasked with defeating enemies to restore these corrupted locations back to their original beauty, and seeing these monochromatic areas spring back into vibrancy is an absolute joy.
Both Kena and The Rot can help here, as you fight through typical waves of enemies and the occasional boss battle, each requiring a specific method to take them down effectively, such as prioritizing ranged attacks or hitting particular weak spots. Send your Rot over to enemies to hold them in place and stun them, restore corrupted plants to heal you, or turn them into an extension of your abilities to deal even more damage.
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Kena provides players with a decent variety of difficulties to tailor the story directly to their needs. As someone who much prefers a more relaxing, narrative experience, I went with the easier of the three: Story Mode. Here, enemies are slightly less aggressive and The Rot’s abilities recharge passively.
On higher difficulties, though, enemies will pack more of a punch, and you’ll need to manage The Rot’s abilities more carefully (and your own) by collecting Courage — gold spheres of energy that drop as you take them down. After completing the game once, you’ll even unlock the Master Spirit Guide difficulty, making it much harder to use these powerful abilities, with Courage depleting every time that you’re hit.
Despite different battles requiring a certain approach to truly excel, it ultimately feels like it doesn’t truly matter how you choose to do it. Both Kena and The Rot have their own abilities to use, with new ones being earned as you venture to new areas within the world that require a particular mechanic to traverse, or as you rescue more of The Rot that are dotted throughout the world to help you level up.
- Read More: All abilities and Rot upgrades
Instead, though, I oftentimes would end up sticking to using my Bow or basic melee attacks without much negative consequence, and if this was a result of playing on Story Mode, less challenge should never spell compromised gameplay.
The Rot’s upgrade tree also feels tacked on. While abilities like Rot-Infused Arrow (which is literally what you think it is) are cool and flashy on paper, I still found myself opting to use regularly charged bow attacks to take down my enemies. Enter the Fray would be useful in higher difficulties, allowing you to start with a Courage point for the critters as soon you enter battle. While I was initially excited by the skill during my playthrough to help me get a headstart in stunning larger enemies, it was quickly negated by the fact that of how fast Courage builds up.
Platforming and exploration aided by The Rot
As you venture throughout the game world, you’ll come across a wide variety of terrain, from flatter land and bodies of water to huge mountains that spill over into the clouds. Most of these will be traversed through simple platforming ledges that you can shimmy across and jump to, whether they’re on larger set pieces or simply to help you climb up a ledge.
While platforming is definitely heavily utilized in world traversal here, it ties in nicely with the game’s vistas and sense of scale.
The Rot can also be used to uncover hidden areas, too. Flower Shrines found throughout the world can be interacted with, turning the tiny Rot into an ever-growing cloud that grows larger and larger as you find more and more of them. With this form, you can collectively control the spirits, directing them to spin or slam into the corruption to reveal these new paths.
Unfortunately, however, this feature feels muddy to use on console, with awkward camera work and counter-intuitive controls. Here, Kena’s movement is restricted to the left analog stick, while The Rot cloud is controlled with the right.
A treasure trove of collectibles to discover
If you’re a fan of collectibles, Kena Bridge of Spirits is an absolute dream. What’s more, these collectibles actually feel as if they serve a purpose in the game itself rather than being tacked on. The only exception here are The Rot’s collectible hats… but they’re so cute that it’s incredibly hard to see them as negatives.
You can find a whole host of different things to work towards that 100% completion goal, from finding more of The Rot themselves to help you level up, restoring beautiful flower shrines, or even finding Spirit Mail from those that reside within the world to open up new areas to explore.
Kena Bridge of Spirits may truly excel when it comes to a beautifully designed world and its gorgeous visuals and animation, but it can all feel relatively familiar, featuring platforming and combat mechanics that we’ve seen time and time again.
Despite this, Ember Lab has created an action-adventure that can be enjoyed by players of all ages, weaving together Kena’s magical abilities, fantastic enemy designs, and a myriad of collectibles to uncover. Wherever the studio decides to take their next adventure, I’m excited to see it — hopefully with the return of The Rot.
Reviewed on PS5.