Kena: Bridge of Spirits (virtual photography by Marty Friedel)

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Published September 27th, 2021

When trailers started appearing for Kena: Bridge of Spirits, it grabbed my attention with two hands. An action adventure game with animation, character design and a world that looks like it stepped right off the screen of a big-budget animated film. But, as we all know, video game trailers never lie, right? 😜 But with a last minute release delay, and absolute no reviews prior to launch (except for months-old preview verdicts), the warning signs were triggered. Then, 2pm on launch day (yep, even a digital release was locked out until a worldwide release time), reviews (plural) started appearing, and they were glowing.

You play as Kena, a young and inexperienced Spirit Guide, who is armed with her staff, finds an abandoned village overrun with corruption, trapping wayward souls. With the assistance of your Rot companions (found throughout the world), you are on a quest to clear the corrupted souls from the world. It’s a simple premise, but one that goes deeper than appearances, both in tone and maturity.

Throughout the world are 100 Rots for you to find - these small spirits combine to help you on your adventure. From aiding you in combat through to carrying heavy objects, these insanely adorable companions not only give you the most adorable side kick, but also choice and compromise in how you approach combat encounters. Rots can help you perform the most powerful attacks - but you only have a limited amount of courage stored up to perform them. The question is: do I let these little black fuzzbuckets (who grin like Ryan Reynolds) take a massive chunk out of this boss, or do I use their courage to purify that (sparsely placed and single-use) plant to heal me mid-combat? It is a choice that demands both compromise and strategy with how you approach every boss encounter - and definitely keeps you on your toes.

Kena and Rots in "Kena: Bridge of Spirits" (virtual photography by Marty Friedel)

The platforming and explorations side of the game is such a joy. The world is beautiful to be in - from the art direction through to the lighting - on PS5 it feels lush, dense and alive. Walking through a patch of large clover-like plants, and they all move freely and organically. With white ledges straight out of, well, any other action/adventure game like Uncharted or Tomb Raider, moving around feels familiar and satisfying, and as you continue, expands with an array of additional tools to help open, move and zip throughout the landscape.

Alongside the 100 Rots in the world, you also have mail to find, shrines to cleanse and meditation spots to increase your health. And, you also have hats. Yes, hats. The variety and cuteness of these is insane - so won’t spoil your reactions to them - but oh they’re so adorable. Then, when you have found the hats, you can dress up your Rot with them. So not only are they cute, but the collectible hats are adorable, and as you continue, you’re followed by an army of hat-wearing little black furry things. Too cute!

But it’s not just about exploration - it’s also about combat. Equipped with her staff, Kena expands her repertoire as the story continues, and you’re left with an array of ranged, melee and explosive attacks, plus defensive approaches including a shield, dodge, and everyone’s favourite, parry.

Parry, when successful, is satisfying. But that’s the issue: when successful. The tutorial where you’re introduced to parrying is like a wallop to the face: two strikes and you’re out. The challenge (problem?) here is that parrying doesn’t feel consistent - and given the difficulty of combat encounters, is a valuable and necessary skill to have in your pocket. But when parry fails to succeed more times that not, you’re left pummelled, and back to the start of the encounter. And sure, skills need to be honed, but Kena’s parrying just doesn’t feel quite right: when it works, you can see its effectiveness, but when it doesn’t, there are no clues or cues as to what to do to improve your timing. Is it a press? A tap? Was I too early? Too late? Oh crap, I just enabled the shield instead: yeah, the same button does shield, pulse and parry: a rather strange decision in itself. The animations of each enemy and their “I’m about to strike” pose vary, and when they strike, they do so incredibly fast, leaving a minuscule parry window to try to hit. The parrying tutorial should provide advice as to how to successfully parry - and what to look for - but instead was knocked down again, and again, and again. A look on the forums online show I’m not alone either. In the end, I stopped trying as the constant defeats were just taking the enjoyment out of the game.

Ghost of Tsushima had a great approach to this: different colours for whether an attach can be parried or must be dodged, and different charms offering tweaked timing windows for the parry. But you’re given cues as to what can be parried, and you can learn based on the enemy and colour, when to attempt.

This is where it starts to feel a bit confused. Is it a casual exploration and adventure game, or is it a Dark Souls-esque combat game? The world is stunning, the Rots are so incredibly cute: but they both create a jarring experience against just how brutal the combat is. I’m happy to have a challenge… on the condition that it is fair. And I feel that Kena: Bridge of Spirits is not quite being fair - partly due to the parry issues. You have these incredibly cute Rots, and then let me die in two hits, on the "normal" difficulty. Ouch. It is a challenging experience with huge spikes in difficulty. With a reliable, consistent and logical parry mechanism, I can see the combat success really shifting up a notch: but when a key technique in your arsenal performs unexpectedly, it just feels too loose and lacking in definition to be an enjoyable challenge.

Accompanying the gorgeous gameplay visuals are of course cinematic - which when paired with the swelling score, are quote powerful. My only criticism here - and it’s not just a Kena issue, but others exhibit it too - is that the cinematic are a combination of pre-rendered and in-game engine clips. Which is fine: but with higher frame rates, developers should consider pre-rendering a 60fps version along with the 30fps version. When playing the game on the PS5’s 60fps mode, the cut to the 30fps pre-rendered cinematic is noticeable. And then some moments are pre-rendered, followed up by parts in-game, all in the letterboxed format, so the frame rate difference is even more noticeable. I appreciate not everything can be done in-engine (especially given the scale of the cinematic), but from an immersion point of view, having a more fluid visual would keep you in it for longer.

Kena with a Rot at the lookout (virtual photography by Marty Friedel)

This is Ember Lab’s first full-length outing: just imagine what else they are capable of - especially if they receive some big-budget support from someone like Sony. Let’s face it: Kena: Bridge of Spirits is one heck of a demo reel. Kena: Bridge of Spirits delivers a lovingly-crafted and simply stunning environment, with Hollywood-quality artwork and characters and charming soundtrack. But don’t let its child-like appearance fool you: what lies underneath is a very adult story and unexpectedly punishing combat.

Being able to be completed in a weekend also proves a solid point that is so often lost in the video game industry: keep it short, keep it sharp, keep it concise and focused, and you increase the potential for replayability - perhaps on a harder difficulty, or just to experience the story again - although a NG+ would be a welcome addition for those harder difficulties. But the point is: you grabbed my attention, you kept it, and by keeping the story on-point on the shorter side, you’re encouraging me to pick it up again, knowing full well it is a game that can be experienced without a weeks-long commitment.

You may be interested in...