Review: Kena: Bridge of Spirits

A great starting point

Kena: Bridge of Spirits caught the attention of action-adventure and 3D platformer enthusiasts when it made a captivating debut at Sony’s PlayStation 5 reveal event last year. Despite a few setbacks, the game has remained a hot topic among fans. Finally, it is available not only on PlayStation 5 but also on PS4 and PC through the Epic Games Store. It’s hard to believe how much time has passed since its initial announcement.
As individuals, we haven’t had the opportunity to witness extensive gameplay footage of Kena since its initial showcase featuring remarkable CG animation. Due to the lack of a comprehensive marketing campaign, some people have created unrealistic expectations based on assumptions. However, I don’t want to speak for everyone and acknowledge that this is solely my perspective.

It’s worth reiterating that Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a small-team production.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits (PS5 [reviewed], PS4, PC)
Developer: Ember Lab
Publisher: Ember Lab
Released: September 21, 2021
MSRP: $39.99

Although the wording may sound concerning, my intention is simply to prepare everyone for Kena. The team’s accomplishments, particularly in terms of visuals, are truly remarkable, and many players (including myself) will undoubtedly enjoy it. However, I am concerned that some individuals may have unrealistic expectations and ultimately be let down.
If you’re anticipating a top-tier action-adventure game with an expansive world to discover and immerse yourself in for several weeks, intricate puzzles to solve, intricate skill trees, consistently captivating movement mechanics, a plethora of side missions, or any other major game features, you may experience some initial shock.
Kena may not be the epitome of excellence as its budget and scope are limited. However, there are instances, such as when I paused to capture the breathtaking scenery or when a high-quality cutscene appeared, that make it effortless to overlook its shortcomings.

To begin with, let me provide some context. As a narrative device, I was immediately captivated by the premise: you assume the role of Kena, a mostly reserved but not entirely silent spirit guide who has been trained to assist departed souls in relinquishing their grief and resentment in this life, allowing them to fully embrace the next. These spirits are represented by wooden masks, which are crafted for the deceased and symbolically intended to deteriorate in tandem with the wearer’s transition into the spirit realm. Thus far, everything sounds promising. It’s a fascinating foundation for a fresh intellectual property, and it wastes no time in immersing you in the journey.
After a brief introduction and tutorial to familiarize players with the jump, attack, and dodge controls, the game begins with Kena encountering a malevolent masked spirit who appears to be the primary antagonist. Additionally, she comes across two young children who are inexplicably alone in the forest. Kena also discovers a peculiar, adorable creature with bright eyes, referred to as the Rot, which is the first of many. The name choice for these creatures is intriguing, and it left me anticipating a potential betrayal from them, although I won’t spoil anything.

Upon learning about Kena, I initially imagined that the Rot would involve solving environmental puzzles similar to those in Pikmin. While the game does incorporate some elements of this, such as commanding the Rot to move objects or distract enemies, it is not a direct parallel.
The Rot have a significant role in the overarching narrative and act as the primary collectible, with a total of 100 to gather. Additionally, they enhance Kena’s combat skills.
Kena possesses a mystical staff and faces various twisted tree-like creatures in combat. These foes can be categorized into several types, such as shield-bearers who require a forceful strike, airborne insects that can shoot projectiles and swarm around her, and formidable mini-bosses that charge towards Kena, causing her to feel overwhelmed.

The majority of battles occur in brief but intense bursts of enemies, and once you’ve defeated them, they won’t reappear, even if you revisit the area later on. Additionally, you may come across cursed chests that provide modest rewards for completing challenges such as defeating a certain number of enemies within a set time frame.
In general, Kena exudes a sense of familiarity with its focus on action-packed offense. Players must become adept at dodge-rolling, particularly during challenging boss battles, and learn the optimal number of consecutive strikes before evading. As the game progresses, new abilities become available, such as a time-stopping bomb for use in platforming puzzles, a piercing arrow, and a teleporting dash-strike.
Although the game’s peaceful appearance may suggest otherwise, some abilities require precise timing, especially when using Kena’s shield bubble to initiate a parry attack. This can be challenging, and I personally struggled with it, making it feel like a risky move. However, it is possible to progress without relying on it. Additionally, there is no need to monitor an endurance meter, so players can dodge as much as they need to.

Combat in Kena: Bridge of Spirits has an enjoyable rhythm. Inflicting damage on enemies causes the Rot to gather “courage” in the form of orbs on the HUD. This courage can be used to unleash potent one-time abilities, such as a destructive spirit hammer or a healing ability that works when a specific plant is nearby (usually found in boss arenas). This system incentivizes players to engage in frequent basic attacks instead of playing defensively for extended periods.
Kena offers three challenging modes, with an additional mode that can be unlocked. Even if you have experience with Souls-like games, you may find yourself struggling with some of the bosses on the standard difficulty. I was pleasantly surprised by the difficulty level of these fights, as they can be quite challenging. The key to success is to be quick and efficient in your attacks, as these fights don’t last long. However, if you play it too safe or fail to master the attack patterns, you’ll need to practice to overcome them.
The combat in Kena can be enjoyable and comprehensive, but it may not feel that way during the initial stages of the game. The lack of options, such as not starting with a bow, and the absence of living creatures in the abandoned village setting can make the game feel empty and unsettling. This may cause some concern about the direction of the game.

Kena exudes a feeling reminiscent of classic platformers, but with a modern twist. The gameplay mechanics are fairly basic, with Kena traversing the world through double-jumping, ledge-clinging, and wall-hugging to find story objectives and collectibles like Rot critters and currency shards. While some may find the simplicity refreshing, others may find it lacking in depth and complexity.
It’s important to note that the combat in Kena: Bridge of Spirits is where the game really shines. Even in its simplest form, the third-person character-action brawls provide a fun and challenging experience, particularly in the latter half of the game. However, when it comes to exploring the vast world, Kena may fall short. While I found the platforming enjoyable, the game’s limited scope becomes most apparent in this aspect. I had anticipated a greater variety of puzzles and characters, but instead found the game to be surprisingly solitary.

If your goal is to experience the entire story without any unnecessary collectibles, it is possible to do so. However, you may need to locate meditation spots to increase Kena’s maximum health and gather additional “karma” currency to access optional skill-tree upgrades such as extra arrows. Keep in mind that the bow has limited charges on a cooldown. There are no restrictions, but it’s crucial to have the necessary resources to survive boss battles.
As someone who enjoys exploring every aspect of a game, I particularly enjoyed the task of locating spirit mail in this game. These mailboxes can be found in front of houses that are blocked off, and in order to purify them, you must first follow a text-based clue to find missing mail that is hidden elsewhere in the game world. The clues are just ambiguous enough to make the search challenging. Additionally, for those who strive for completion, there is a beautifully illustrated world map that displays your progress in collecting items within a specific region. The map also provides convenient fast-travel options, but does not provide any hand-holding.
Kena impresses on a technical level, particularly on the PS5 platform. The visuals are stunning and the load times are so fast that they don’t leave a lasting impression. The DualSense feedback on the bow is a standout feature that never gets old. I personally played in the 60fps / upscaled 4K “performance mode,” which I would recommend over the 30fps / 4K “fidelity mode.” While there was a slight dip in frame rate in one small area of the map, overall performance was crucial for me, especially since fluid combat is a major highlight of the game.
I must take a moment to give credit to the captivating cutscenes that carry the emotional weight of the game. Additionally, the tranquil soundtrack features a few earworms that worked their magic whenever I retraced my steps. However, the voiceover was inconsistent in my opinion.
What is the length of Kena? It’s difficult to distinguish the essential path from my tendency to complete everything. I was aware of a point where progress couldn’t be reversed (which should be anticipated), and that diverted my attention for a considerable amount of time. The primary game can be completed in approximately six to eight hours, but if you’re willing to meticulously search for everything, that number can significantly increase. Did I mention the hats? You’ll definitely want to adorn your creatures with adorable hats.
Although I do wish that the Rot played a larger role in the puzzles and exploration, I also understand the importance of the game’s concise and focused approach. Ember Lab could have risked overcommitting, so I appreciate their restraint. While the world can feel empty and repetitive at times, the simplicity of the platforming is balanced by the precise and streamlined action.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits can be described as strategically ambitious rather than overly ambitious. Ember Lab wisely avoided taking on more than they could handle with their debut game, and I found it to be quite enjoyable.

I hope there’s a sequel! After a much-deserved break, of course.

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]