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Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Ember Lab
Release Date: Sept. 21, 2021


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PS5 Review - 'Kena: Bridge of Spirits'

by Redmond Carolipio on Oct. 15, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

A story-driven action-adventure, Kena: Bridge of Spirits seamlessly blends narrative with exploration, puzzle-solving, and fast-paced combat for a beautiful, immersive journey.

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One thing I will remember about playing Kena: Bridge of Spirits is how I kept stopping what I was doing to just stare at it, listen to it, feel it, and visually drink it in again. It's become trite to talk about how good a game looks in this next-generation age because practically everything can look astonishing, but for titles like this, starting the discussion here can't be helped. The world of Kena is one of beauty, magic, exploration, and heart, and it's one of the most engaging quests you will find on the PS5.

This is the maiden voyage into gaming for Ember Lab, a Black-owned, Los Angeles-based indie studio that specializes in creating characters for animated commercials and movies. If you've watched enough of these types of characters in TV and film, there's a visual bounce to them that, when it's good, sets up shop in front of your mind's eye and can hold its gaze for the entirety of a journey, whether it's for a 30-second spot or several hours at a time.

For Kena, that visual richness is turned all the way up. After a brief introduction, you start in the boots of Kena, a spirit guide whose life mission is to help usher troubled or stranded spirits into the afterlife. She begins her journey in a dark cave that can be illuminated by the first (and probably most important) of her magical abilities: a pulse of azure spirit energy that grows to have a variety of functions beyond simply lighting up blue crystals. It's often the trigger for major events and the core action required to begin or complete many of the game's puzzles.

That also opens up the first visual impression of the game in motion, as pulsing to brighten up the cave offers a taste of how perfectly the light bounces off the walls, off Kena herself, and off of the shallow, shimmering water she's standing in. Since you're in a cave, it almost feels like a tease. Kena meets a mysterious figure in this cave who gives the impression that she's not welcome (It's more than an impression; the dude says, "You do not belong"). Following a warning, he conjures up some creatures for Kena to get her first taste of core combat. It's refreshingly simple, with fast and strong attacks assigned to the right shoulder and trigger buttons, respectively, and the L1 "pulse" button becomes the trigger for a shield/block defensive feature. All of this looked amazing, especially when you stop to look at Kena's movement and design. Her eyes narrow and her mouth is in sync with when she yells with every swing of her staff, adorned with a blue crystal at the end. The flap on her leather satchel flops up and down whenever she jogs or runs, as does her bob of hair on top of her head. These are small details, but they all added up to the grander views the game had in store.

Everything opens up when Kena reaches her main destination: an abandoned village populated with lost spirits. The village is burdened with patches of mysterious, dark corruption that saps the color from the village and the vast lands around it, which Kena has to traverse during her journey. Kena's purpose is to visit the Mountain Shrine, which could hold the key to helping the troubled spirits and healing the village.

The map of Kena's world is large and is a fortune of color and visual life. On the way to visit a village elder named Rusu, who lived on top of a mountain, I found myself running up a fallen tree trunk the size of a bus, latte-brown wood darkened with cocoa-brown swirls that were meant to twist up to the sky instead of sideways, toward my goal. Sunlight kissed the leaves spilling out of another tree trunk to my left, this one hollowed out and giving the illusion of green foliage pouring onto the rocks below. Even corrupt areas carried a sort of somber beauty about them, with dark flowers that carried the aura of death and sadness embedded with glowing red orbs simmering with power that needed to be wiped out. Kena's task is tall, but she also had plenty of tools to get the job done.

Like the combat, the entire system of gameplay for Kena feels diverse enough but also efficient and clean. Everything made sense. Aside from her use of spirit energy, one of the coolest features deals with the companionship of a species of creatures called the Rot. They're small, furry, softball-sized beings that resemble round inkblots, but with limbs, eyes, and smiling mouths. They are ridiculously cute. Some of them wear stuff on their heads. Kena can "collect" them on her journey, and they collectively come with an arsenal of helpful and essential abilities.

They can pick up and move things, which can be useful if Kena needs to jump to hard-to-reach spots. With the aid of a certain magic flower, they can form together and create a "cloud" of moveable power that can be controlled with the right thumbstick. Not only can they damage enemies, but they can also be used to clear away some patches of corruption that could be blocking paths or clogging up mechanisms, like bridges. They can also be used in the heat of battle, especially when it comes to healing on the fly (by "purifying" a nearby flower with healing properties) or distracting enemies to open strike opportunities for Kena. They also function as the catalyst for cleaning corruption after a battle. The aforementioned doom flowers with red orbs occasionally need to be opened up so the Rot can swarm them, turn them blue, and give Kena a shot to pulse (or shoot an energy arrow, acquired later) and wipe them out. In a very endearing visual footnote, they follow Kena around — all the time, disappearing and popping up at will, as strange and ethereal creatures are wont to do.

Without giving too much away, most of my playtime in Kena was spent in a familiar and easy-to-follow Zeldian pattern of combat, platforming, solving puzzles, traveling to an area, and solving that area's problems. The main antagonists are spirits who were pillars of the village community whose backstories explain why the village and the surrounding land are in the shape they are in. Each one is marvelous and intriguing in his or her own right, and the telling of their progressive stories was done in a masterful way that will connect with players on a variety of levels. One spirit is a gay female woodworker who comes across like an action hero in the retelling of her life, building something to help mitigate the issues surrounding the Mountain Shrine.

Kena's own personal journey is reflected in both the narrative and the growth of her abilities, which not only include the aforementioned shooting of energy arrows but also spirit "bombs" that can activate and reassemble ancient devices and platforms for a limited amount of time — and yes, of course you'll have to jump on these platforms before they collapse and kill you.

Within all of this action are other superb atmospheric elements. Kena's cultural tones carry significant notes from the East, such as Bali and Japan. The music is beautiful, with more than a few hints of gamelan, which is music from the peoples of Indonesia. The narrative backbone of the game focuses on beliefs around death. The introduction at the start of the game mentions the importance of masks as ways to commemorate the dead. Here, they are also keys into the spirit realm that can lead to answers about a spirit's past or a boss confrontation. I didn't expect to be enriched while playing, but I was, and enjoyably so.

If there are a few potential trouble spots, it's that the game can sometimes leave you hanging on where to go or what to do next. Many of us are conditioned to running in the direction of a glowing point of a map, so some people might be caught sort of running around with no idea what to do.

I also ran into the occasional missed step. For example, when I finally met Rusu, the village spirit guide on the mountain, he showed me how to shoot my energy arrows. After that, my next goal was on the map, which was to head back to the village and clear corruption. I fast-traveled to the village center and was left with not having any clue or entry point on what to do next. That's because I had to keep following along with Rusu's mini-tutorial on arrows and walk down a set path from the mountain. That's information I could have used instead of wondering for 20 minutes what happened. The hints to some of the puzzles also might be a little too subtle for the player. I don't want things spelled out for me, but it might be a tough ask at first for a player to realize they have to narrow their eyes and look at stars or a number of candles for their answer to a sequential puzzle when they blend in with the rest of the beauty.

That said, I found Kena: Bridge of Spirits to be one of the best treats of the year, both for the eyes and for the soul. Not only does it show elaborate craftsmanship, but it also feels like it was infused with joy and awareness. I'm happy it's here, and I look forward to seeing where Kena's bridge can lead.

Score: 8.9/10

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