A former animation and digital content studio named Ember Lab released its first action-adventure game called Kena: Bridge of Spirits. The developers excel at showcasing their artistic talent, storytelling capabilities, and musical composition skills but fall slightly short when providing engaging combat and smooth mechanics.
Story- Confronting the Past
The story is simple yet has enough substance to keep players interested.
Deep in a forest lies a forgotten village that was plagued with famine. Unfortunately, all residents were wiped out because of the disease. The villagers adopted an intriguing tradition for those who pass away. A wooden mask is honored on a shrine so the souls of the deceased can proceed to the Spirit Realm. However, some can’t cross into the afterlife due to traumatic experiences holding them back. These troubled spirits become evil and destructive, contaminating the land.
A young Spirit Guide named Kena stumbles upon the village and vows to rescue the corrupted souls of Taro, Adira, and Toshi. She must collect relics and discover the painful memories of these spirits to help them find peace. But that’s easier said than done.
Gameplay – Kind of Fun and Kind of Clunky
Numerous foes will stand in your way as you journey to different forest areas, but it’s up to you to use different strategies and newfound abilities to defeat them. Then, formidable final bosses will put your acquired skills to the test!
Sweet Rewards for Exploring
Although the game is linear, there’s tons of room to explore. I suggest venturing out to level up quickly. Karma, Rots, and Meditation Spots are most important for Kena to gain strength.
Look for Karma, the currency for upgrades, and Rots, the little black sprites, since they’re used to improve the Spirit Guide’s attacks. You’ll easily find Karma through several actions, such as finding fruit for the Rots and clearing corrupted land.
Some upgrades require a specific Rot level, which only increases by discovering the tiny forest creatures. You may wonder how you’ll notice them in the foliage, but don’t worry! The Rots you’ve befriended highlight hidden Rots and other interactive objects like levers and grabbable ledges.
Meditation Spots are vital to Kena’s strength since they increase her health. Keep a lookout for these glowing blue circles. Believe me, you’ll want the extra health for final bosses.
The lush world of Kena also contains Spirit Mail. Deliver these pouches to corrupted homes to cleanse the land and liberate the trapped spirits of villagers. Each corruption-infested home gives one clue indicating where to find a Spirit Mail. Searching for these was challenging yet enjoyable. It felt like I was taking a break from saving the village to go treasure hunting! More importantly, new areas unlock when these pouches get delivered to their rightful owners.
Then there’s the crystal-like currency found in chests, statues, and other items. Kena uses the crystals to buy hats for the Rots, which is pleasant – until you realize the currency is exclusively for buying hats. Don’t get me wrong, the accessories are adorable, but they don’t improve the Rots’ powers. They’ll be a treat for those into cosmetics, but at some point, I started to ignore chests and statues since the hat money didn’t interest me.
Combat That’s Inconsistently Gratifying
Kena starts with basic light and heavy staff attacks, but you unlock other weapons and abilities as you level up. The extra weapons include a bow and bombs that slightly diversify your fighting style. The most enjoyable part of combat is using Rot Actions. These deal powerful blows or temporarily immobilize a foe. The Rots need to fill up on Courage to perform these actions, which is done by hitting enemies.
Most of these Rot Actions are satisfying upon introduction but gradually become underwhelming. Since there aren’t many upgrades available, the combat quickly gets old. Furthermore, fighting small monsters seems too easy and repetitive because most die after a couple of hits.
That being said, you shouldn’t underestimate the game’s overall difficulty. Bosses present the biggest challenges and yield the greatest feeling of accomplishment. Even in Normal Mode, they deal a lot of damage. Be aware that bosses will be tough if you have trouble dodging and blocking precisely. All have lightning-fast movements that will knock Kena off her feet in a heartbeat. I advise using your bow to hit glowing weak spots on your enemy and practicing the perfect parry.
As mentioned before, Courage is used to attack, but you’ll also need it to gather health from blue flowers. Therefore, it’s best to use Courage wisely while fighting. It’s stressful to choose between attacking an enemy or restoring health, but battling bosses makes combat briefly pleasing since they compel you to strategize!
When Things Go South
I saw a few hiccups throughout the game, many of which frustrated me.
The controls feel a bit awkward at times. For example, Kena often got stuck against something as I dodged away from an enemy, causing my demise. This problem was most aggravating when I battled final bosses since they were tough to beat.
Another issue lies in collecting health. Sometimes, I couldn’t order the Rots to restore my health unless the camera was directly behind Kena while aiming at the blue flowers.
The most annoying control issue is the clunkiness of jumping. Kena often slid off the edges of surfaces while platforming, making the mechanic feel unpolished. It’s a shame since the platforming is fun, but it would be better if the execution were more refined.
There were noticeable performance issues too. The game’s frame rate repeatedly dropped when trying to load textures. I also had a mini heart attack when the game crashed. No progress was lost, but it was scary nonetheless.
Graphics and Sound – Second to None
The music in Kena is breathtaking and unlike any other game since it features Balinese music! The composer, Jason Gallaty, collaborated with Gamelan Çudamani, an ensemble from Bali, to ensure the soundtrack properly reflects Balinese culture. The result is an enchanting musical experience that differentiates itself from mainstream games.
The songs also perfectly match the atmosphere of various situations. For example, when Kena is casually strolling, you hear a song with bamboo flutes and a choir. These sounds are calming, given the song’s lighthearted and whimsical aura. On the other hand, the thundering of drums is prominent when Kena is in battle, creating a heavier ambiance that evokes panic.
The sound effects are undoubtedly noteworthy. For example, there’s a robust pulse when Kena detonates a Rot bomb that sends shivers up my spine. These effects are crisp and clear, satisfying those who appreciate sound design.
As for the voice acting, there’s not much to say about it. The voice actors aren’t bad, but I felt they delivered most lines flatly.
Last but not least are Kena’s graphics. The developer’s dedication to visuals gives Kena cinematic animations that surpass several games. I admire how Ember Lab poured their hearts and souls into the cut scenes and pictures.
Like the soundtrack, the cultural richness of the game shines in its graphics too. Symbols, buildings, and mask details are inspired by Southeast Asian and Japanese influences.
The final bosses are the best parts of the character designs. Each of these corrupted spirits possesses a unique wooden mask that represents them. Not only are the bosses distinctive, but their introductions are outstanding too. Watching the lost souls transform into formidable beasts always struck fear in me, yet I couldn’t help but be mesmerized.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits was reviewed on PS4.