Although it is the first video game released by developer Ember Lab, “Kena: Bridge of Spirits” is the furthest thing from amateur. I quickly fell in love with its well crafted world, thrilling combat and touching story. I even learned a little about myself along the way.
“Kena: Bridge of Spirits” is an action-adventure game that centers around Kena, a spirit guide, who travels to a decimated village in search of a powerful mountain shrine. In order to reach the shrine, Kena must help three souls find peace and guide them to the afterlife. She also receives some help from an adorable gaggle of creatures called Rot, who have their own special abilities that combine with Kena’s to defeat corrupted enemies.
Each of the game’s four story sections follows a pattern. First, you explore a new area, then you must find three relics belonging to a spirit until finally, you clear out the corruption taking over the land. In between relic hunting and combat, exploration is heavily encouraged. There are multiple types of collectibles to track down, one being a variety of hats Kena can buy for the Rot. There is also an upgrade system, in which the player exchanges points earned in combat or specific story beats for new and expanded abilities. All of Kena’s weapons, including the Rot, have multiple upgrades that are equally worthwhile.
En route to each destination, there are puzzles blocking your path that involve timed bow challenges, manipulation of the environment (such as moving stones and creating pathways) and cryptic symbols to decipher. Many of these, especially those concerning land movement, make the game feel like a 3D platformer, forcing the player to dash, jump, grapple and climb their way through obstacles. It often took me multiple tries to figure out how to traverse the obstacles, but it felt extremely rewarding each time I finally made it past a difficult area.
Throughout my playthrough, I could feel so many different influences coming together. The Rot are a charming combination of Nintendo’s “Pikmin” and the Koroks from “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” The Rot are each one hidden all over the vast world and combine into one to solve puzzles. Further influence of “Breath of the Wild” is felt in many of the puzzles, which feel as though they would be right at home in a shrine from the game. Many have also compared the game’s platforming elements to classic PlayStation 2 puzzle-platformers, such as “Jak and Daxter” or “Sly Cooper.” However, all of these influences are subtle enough that the game still feels singular and fresh.
Before “Kena: Bridge of Spirits,” Ember Lab specialized in animation and it absolutely shows. The game is stylized like a more visually interesting Pixar film and the gameplay is equal in quality to the cutscenes. The animation is consistently smooth and lifelike; Kena takes a moment to speed up when pressing the left stick to sprint and she also takes a minute to support herself anytime she stands up after meditating. From the realistic additions to movement to the depth of detail in each of Kena’s environments, there are so many small beauties that left me in awe.
I played the game on my PlayStation 5 in performance mode. It ran and looked flawless. Although it’s also available on PlayStation 4, the choice of performance or fidelity mode is exclusive to PS5. Also exclusive to PS5 is the implementation of the DualSense controller’s haptic feedback, which was especially noticeable when using Kena’s bow and feeling the tension of the bowstring as I pressed down the right trigger. The audio design is also remarkable, taking advantage of Playstation’s 3D audio during combat. Outside of combat, the music is beautiful and immersive, featuring Balinese music performed by a traditional gamelan orchestra.
The stunning environments and humanistic details are far from the only stunning parts of the game, as even fighting looks magnificent. Not only does combat look incredible, but it feels incredible as well. The combat is surprisingly reminiscent of “Dark Souls” with an emphasis on dodging and parrying, but with a difficulty, that’s much more welcoming to beginners.
Full disclosure: I had to change the game’s difficulty a few hours in because it was already too difficult, but I wouldn’t consider this a negative. In fact, it’s a testament to the developers’ skill in creating fresh, engaging combat that utilizes the variety of tools Kena earns along her journey. The game has four difficulty modes and whether you’re looking for an extreme challenge or a compelling story with lighter combat, you’ll enjoy the experience just as much.
What struck me the most about “Kena: Bridge of Spirits” was not its style or systems, but its story. I cried not once, not twice but four times over the course of my ten-hour playthrough. The story is essentially broken up by side characters, with each section centered around Kena’s journey to rescue a different character. I went into “Kena: Bridge of Spirits” expecting a beautiful, mysterious puzzle game, but as the credits rolled I reflected on the touching themes of grief, environmentalism and acceptance of change.
Each spirit’s story was told through not just cutscenes, but the look and feel of the environment, collectibles, music and combat of each area in Kena’s world. The tone shifts from joy, sadness, anger and finally relief over the course of the journey; the final moments are bittersweet. I understood the motivations of each character, especially the antagonist. The spirits of “Kena” experienced grief in their own ways and soaking up their surroundings helped me understand my own grieving process.
I’m no stranger to grief. While growing up I struggled to cope with tumultuous periods of change in my life, so Kena’s story hit hard. Just like Kena, I’ve always felt an obligation to prove myself, especially after the death of someone important to me as a child. The message at the culmination of Kena’s story was something I’ve been working on for years: Change will come and it’s okay to grieve as long as we can find inner peace and move on.
There’s something comforting about hearing this message through a video game. It reminds me that I’m not alone and everyone has moments of struggling to accept reality. We may all experience pain and change differently, but we can still work through it together. Whatever the future holds for Ember Lab, I look forward to seeing how they follow up such a beautiful, emotional experience.
Daily Arts Writer Harper Klotz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.