I do believe we first saw Kena: Bridge of Spirits announced way back in June 2020, which was when Sony lifted the proverbial curtain on its then brand new PS5 console.
Indie studio Ember Lab’s first ever video game project was humbly tucked somewhere in between Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Demon’s Souls, a surprising breath of fresh air in an otherwise predictable lineup of first party exclusives. Beyond Bridge of Spirits, I don’t remember much else about that rather uneventful PlayStation presentation.
What I do remember quite clearly, though, is thinking: Now this is my kind of game.
Fast forward almost a year and half, and Kena is simultaneously releasing for PS4, PS5 and the Epic Games Store on PC tomorrow, September 21. Apparently, it’s still a timed console exclusive for PlayStation, so I’d imagine it will be headed to Xbox at some point, at the very least.
I’ve spent the last couple days with a review copy of the game (about halfway through as of this writing), and while it’s not a perfect adventure, it is endearing and charming in all the ways that count. As such, I’ve come to consider it this generation’s Beyond Good & Evil. In other words: What Ember Lab has created here is noteworthy, but I have a nagging suspicion that it’s destined for cult classic status. At least it’s listed for a reasonable $40.
In Bridge of Spirits, you play as the titular Kena, an even-keeled novice spirit guide tasked with ushering troubled, wayward souls into the great beyond. Because, well, if lost spirits stick around too long after their bodies have bit the dust, they apparently get a little… angry?
These twisted spirits comprise the enemy brigade in the game. In a way, they resemble evil incarnations of the old Skylander character Tree Rex; gnarled, branch-ridden, twistedly organic entities that used to be kind souls and now want to crush the life out of our brave hero. I mean, she just wants to help, man.
The game largely takes place in and around a devastated and abandoned village, as well as the surrounding forest, which Kena has to clean and purify of corruption in the vein of similar titles like Super Mario Sunshine or Concrete Genie.
The whole experience is somewhat linear, moving from one devastated area to the next, gradually bringing life and lush greenery back to the map. That isn’t to say Bridge of Spirits is all contained in one straight line; by way of Metroid fashion, there is some calculated backtracking involved, with areas of the environment slowly opening up in fresh new ways as Kena gains more powers.
Controlling Kena is an absolute dream, and that extends to the fast-paced combat. Movements are all extremely responsive, though parrying can be difficult to master and can feel a bit unfair at times. Once Kena gains access to the bow mechanic, which is a transformation of her default staff, battles can get really intense. Balancing close quarter combat while trying to take down aerial enemies can result in some thrilling multi-tasking.
While Bridge of Spirits does have a lock-on function for fighting, the game could have benefited from some kind of Zelda-esque Z-targeting. To be fair, the lack of a solid targeting mechanic might have to do with how the buttons are mapped. Attack and blocking commands are relegated to the shoulder buttons, not unlike God of War or Godfall, so holding down the left trigger serves to aim, which extinguishes the barebones lock-on entirely.
There’s also a pulse button, default mapped to the left bumper button, which sends out an energy wave and allows you to activate set pieces and collect items. The other control gripe I have is when steering the amalgamated dragon Rot creature (more on the Rot in a second). It’s movement is relegated to the right analog stick, which leaves you without a means to control the camera while directing the Rot. This leads to some awkward camera angles.
Speaking of combat, it’s an absolute blast. Enemies are varied, especially the larger-than-life bosses, and every battle so far has managed to keep me on my toes. Trust me when I say that as the game progresses, encounters become quite challenging. It’s not uncommon to spend an hour or so trying to take down one of the more formidable foes, learning their attack patterns through Souls-like trial and error.
The Rot, an ever-expanding tagalong group of woodland sprites that you collect as you go, help to set Kena’s adventure apart from more traditional entries in the genre. You collect Rot as you go, finding them underneath logs and rocks and whatnot. Gradually, you build up a tiny Rot army, and they’re not just for adorable looks (although you can outfit them in tiny, adorable, customizable hats).
All I can say is, thank Ember Lab there are no Rot hat microtransactions, because I’d end up buying them all on a binge and regretting absolutely nothing.
As your Rot Posse grows (you can have that one, Ember Lab), their increasing numbers follow you around like little lemmings, adorning every nook and cranny you stop to explore. It’s a nice, funny little touch to see Rot watching you from ledges and inside the nooks of village kitchens, especially when they’re wearing the latest unlocked hats.
The Rot would have made for great PocketStation fodder back on the PS1. Imagine downloading customized Rot to your PDA, training them, battling them. The retro possibilities are endless. Maybe Ember Lab can partner with Panic Inc. on their upcoming Playdate for some virtual pet fun.
In the vein of something like Clank’s robot companions in the Ratchet & Clank games, Kena can send the Rot to do tasks for her, like prime deadzone hearts for cleansing, unlock healing powers when Kena is in trouble or even come together during combat for Kena’s aid via powerful offensive moves.
If you’ve seen gameplay footage, let’s cut to the chase: Bridge of Spirits is downright gorgeous. I’ve been playing through the game on PC in 1080p, 240 Hz, and an average framerate of 122 (Ryzen 5 5600X, RTX 3070, 32 GB DDR4).
With its expertly crafted animations, the game looks like the long-lost cousin to stop-motion studio Laika’s Kubo and the Two Strings. I once caught some lens flare glinting up at Kena from a fresh rain puddle and I spent at least ten mezmerized seconds admiring its subtle beauty.
The whole game is bathed in a mythical Eastern theme, right down to the meditation spots that serve to increase Kena’s health bar. The best part about these moments are how you can basically sit and meditate for as long as you want. The camera just pans around you indefinitely until you choose to move again, so if you’re having a particularly stressful day, chill out with Kena for a while.
There are even Uncharted-esque ledge pouncing segments. As such, some of the areas have some dizzying verticality to them — the game’s subtle exploration focus always urging you to push upward into the towering forest canopies.
There is some light puzzle solving in Bridge of Spirits, and for the most part, I found the puzzles to be intuitive. Minus, that is, a particular area that I won’t detail to avoid spoilers, but let’s just say I needed the PR team’s assistance in progressing. That said, I would have appreciated being able to set a basic waypoint on the map.
You’ll want to play Kena with a set of good headphones, by the way, because the sound design and soundtrack are a step above. Major kudos to the audio design team, because Kena’s soundscape is an absolute joy. Whether it’s ominous flute runs, ambient percussion or the vaguely threatening rush of a storm, Bridge of Spirits has good sound for days.
Ember Lab, with its clear animation pedigree, have created something that’s as fun to watch as it is to play. And for a first gaming effort? Commendable, to say the least. I just hope Bridge of Spirits sells well enough to warrant a sequel or a Rot Pikmin-esque spinoff, because I want to see much more of Kena’s stunning world.
Now, onto finishing this quest…
Disclosure: Ember Lab provided a review code for coverage purposes.