Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a love letter to those action platformers of the early noughties, transporting you back to the days of Jak & Daxter, Sly Raccoon, and Prince of Persia on the PS2. Kena isn’t stuck in the past, however – from its Pixar-like visuals to a diverse gameplay mix, this is one of the genre’s best games in years.
It may shock you to hear that this is developer Ember Lab’s first ever video game. Before Kena: Bridge of Spirits, the team has worked as an animation studio, mainly for TV ads and short movie projects. One of their creations – a Majora’s Mask fan film – is intriguing to watch back following Kena’s launch. Ember Lab clearly has a passion for all things The Legend of Zelda and it shows in their gameplay and visual design, frequently daubed with splashes of Nintendo magic.
Kena’s world is steeped in a natural mystic beauty, corroded by an evil blight sweeping the land. Majestic mountains, flowing rivers, and verdant forests have been gripped by a poison, casting a shadow over the otherwise idyllic world as spirits struggle to find their way to the afterlife.
That’s where our stave-wielding hero comes in. Like her father, Kena is a spirit guide who aids wandering souls into the great beyond, helping them to let go of the fears and regrets anchoring them to the world of the living. It’s a story that’s rich with emotion though one that isn’t overly saturated with exhaustive dialogue and cinematics.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits isn’t an open world game. Setting out from an abandoned town, you follow a linear path through several vast regions, each one gradually unfolding to reveal more secrets as you explore, with the option to revisit anywhere on the map via fast travel.
It’s likely Kena won’t click until after those first couple of hours. Our hero’s combat and puzzle solving skills are fairly underdeveloped when starting out, limiting the gameplay variety on offer. However, as you collect resources, purchase upgrades, and unlock new powers, the game’s fun factor is dialled up considerably. Instead of making a beeline through Bridge of Spirits, you’ll feel compelled to stop and explore.
Combat is simple yet challenging. Kena can chain light and heavy attacks, also using her stave to fire off arrows. When enemies attack, you can either roll out of the way, pop a spirit shield or even parry if you get your timing correct. Perform well during a battle and a bravery meter will fill, allowing you to trigger one of Kena’s special moves.
Calling upon The Rot – those adorable critter companions – you can stagger opponents, leaving them vulnerable to attacks. As Ember Lab throws more enemy types into the mix, each combat encounter can almost feel like a puzzle as you try to incapacitate bigger enemies or expose weak points.
You may be surprised at the number of boss battles that punctuate Kena’s quest through this corrupted world. These encounters put your skills to the test, pitting you against brutish rivals who can usually take Kena down with a few rapid blows. The game certainly has some difficulty spikes, but this cuts both ways, leaving you immensely satisfied when watching a boss finally tumble as you cling to a sliver of health.
In between bouts of combat you’ll trek through Kena’s world, clearing the fog by climbing ruins, delving into caves, and solving puzzles. This is where The Rot come in handy again, Kena commanding them to clear pathways and lift objects. Combining this simple mechanic with the traversal powers you acquire over time allows the puzzle platforming to become more advanced.
It goes without saying that Bridge of Spirits looks enchanting, whether playing in 4K or in performance mode on PS5. Naturally, the pre-rendered cutscenes are where Ember Labs really get to flex their muscles, punctuating Kena’s story with some jaw-dropping animated scenes. This isn’t quite matched by the game’s audio, though the voice acting is still great and the soundtrack adds depth and magic to this mysterious world.