Kena: Bridge of Spirits on PC

2021 was a rather interesting year for gaming and the industry. New World was released on PC, blowing up a few graphics cards along the way, GameStop had that strange stock rise for a few minutes, and a few big-name games saw hefty delays as teams adjusted to working from home. On a more positive spin, after the scary rise of live service titles, 2021 also proved that single-player games still reigned supreme as we saw the likes of Psychonauts 2, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart make pushes for Game of the Year.

However, there’s one game that was released in September 2021 that I feel flew relatively under the radar, despite winning awards such as Best Independent Game and Best Indie Game at 2021’s The Game Awards. That game is Kena: Bridge of Spirits, and after its release on PS5 and PC via Epic Games Store last year, it’s finally heading to Steam; while I played the game when it first launched on PS5, I was super excited to give it a go on PC as well.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits puts players in the role of a young girl, Kena, who serves as a guide to spirits of the deceased who remain trapped between the physical and spiritual world, a lot of which hold on to great pain or have unresolved business in the world of the living, which in turn causes problems for those still alive.

As a spirit guide, Kena’s role is to help spirits reach the resolution they deserve to move on. Her journey leads her to a village in the mountains where a masked man has unleashed a nasty corruption on the land full of monsters and decay. You must stop him before the corruption claims more lives and consumes the world.

kena: bridge of spirits review – just as magical the second time around

Image Source: Ember Lab via Twinfinite

From a gameplay perspective, Kena: Bridge of Spirits plays exactly like a 3D version of older Legend of Zelda games. Kena uses her Spirit Staff to chain together light and heavy attacks against Groot-looking monsters created by the corruption, she can block and parry foes, and as you progress, her repertoire grows beyond her staff with unique power-ups such as a bow.

These abilities serve dual purposes outside of combat, as she can use them to help solve puzzles which the game carries in abundance. It’s pretty familiar once you get the hang of it, yet one addition separates this from being a Legend of Zelda clone, and that would be the Rot.

Introduced early on in the game, the ironically named Rot are little companions that aid Kena in her journey of cleansing the village and surrounding world. The best way to describe them would be to picture the Minions from Despicable Me but way less devious. Kena starts off finding one hidden under a rock, but as you progress and explore the semi-open-world, you’ll grow your Rot army to over 40 of the little guys.

The Rot play a variety of roles in Kena: Bridge of Spirits. They help by clearing the corruption in conjunction with Kena’s spirit staff, they can aid you in combat by powering up your attacks for a “Rot-infused” boost or by stunning opposition for a short period. They also serve as little lifters as they can move heavy objects around for Kena. You’ll need all the help you can get from them as combat is surprisingly challenging for a game that presents itself as sweet and innocent, and clearing up the world Kena inhabits is a daunting task for the young spirit guide. I will mention the end of the game does get challenging, so be ready.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits isn’t a fully open-world experience, even though it feels like it is. Much in line with games like Dishonored, Bridge of Spirits is a bunch of smaller open-world hubs tied together by the main village. You’ll find yourself interacting with spirits looking to move on, restoring prayer sites by clearing the corruption, and completing various puzzles that will have you combine Kena’s abilities to complete an objective.

It’s very familiar in a good and bad way as, towards the end of the game, Kena’s abilities have only expanded by a few new additions, so you’ll see that the puzzles require a repetitive approach to solving them. Use the bow to traverse a gap, use the Rot to move a heavy object, or use a bomb projectile to lift and freeze structures are common themes in the game’s approach to puzzle solving.

I will say the familiarity of it all works fine, but the repetitive nature knocks the gameplay down a few pegs. Moving forward, aside from cutting down the repetition present in this title, a neat angle to take would be for Ember Lab to infuse storytelling into the puzzles. Imagine learning more about the world Kena inhabits while solving puzzles in a manner akin to Naughty Dog’s approach with Uncharted’s puzzles. The answer here isn’t to add more powers or to make them more challenging, it’s to switch up the approach to puzzle’s in a video game that leans heavily into art and stunning visual design.

kena: bridge of spirits review – just as magical the second time around

Image Source: Ember Lab via Twinfinite

Before Ember Lab put this title together, the group was known for a small visual project by the name of Majora’s Mask – A Terrible Fate. Based off of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the film went viral upon release, with fans praising the animation, tone of the project and the studio’s unique take on a Zelda-inspired film. That project released in 2016, and it seems like the team has only gotten better since releasing that short, as Kena: Bridge of Spirits is arguably one of the best looking and top-tier animated projects I’ve seen to date.

Upon booting up the game, it becomes clear that the game is going to look good as the light from Kena’s staff shines bright blue in a dimly lit cave. However, once you step foot into the open-world the art design ratchets up immensely. The world is stunning as Ember Lab drew inspiration from Eastern locations such as Japan and Bali to create something magnificent. Your journey takes you through rich forest spaces and to the highest mountains above the main village with incredible draw distances, plenty of wallpaper-worthy moments, and a well-done Photo Mode to capture it all.

One segment that highlights the game’s visual beauty is when you enter one of the many hubs filled with corruption, which boast areas that have been drained of life and painted in a noir style filter in a manner reminiscent of Pandemic Studios’ The Saboteur. Your goal is to clear the corruption, and as you fight the lingering evil, the world bursts into color in a manner similar to how The Saboteur would when freeing Paris from German occupation, showcasing the vibrant and magical setting that Ember Lab managed to create using Unreal Engine 4 for Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

As much as I could go on about the game’s art direction, the game also features some of the best, original in-game music I’ve ever heard. It ranges from oddly simplistic when you’re roaming an area to a beautiful crescendo upon completing an objective to a bit more intense when fighting off the monsters produced by the corruption. It’s reminiscent of the musical score from shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, as Ember Lab tapped deep into Eastern culture to create an amazing soundtrack that’s boosted by Kena’s voice actor, Ayu Larassanti. I rarely listen to a video game soundtrack outside of playing a game, but I actively searched for Kena’s soundtrack and listened to it.

kena: bridge of spirits review – just as magical the second time around

Image Source: Ember Lab via Twinfinite

Having played through this twice, I will say that my PC playthrough wasn’t perfect. I did have a noticeable issue with a Rot technique that requires you to use your mouse, and while it may seem minor, it was rather strange since having two thumb sticks on a controller makes it way simpler. On the other hand, I did notice a few frame drops when a tutorial previewed a new technique, and I did notice that the game looked grainy when using the Photo Mode.

For reference, I have a 2070 Super on my PC and ran the game at Ultra settings, per the benchmark, but I am not a PC wizard, so it might have been an issue on my part. However, if I’m being honest, none of those issues hampered my overall experience, but I shed light on them for those who might see those as issues. Another minor issue I had was with swimming because there wasn’t an option to swim faster. I know it sounds minor, and maybe that’s because I have an intense need for speed. I don’t think the team has changed that design, and I’m okay with that.

kena: bridge of spirits review – just as magical the second time around

Image Source: Ember Lab via Twinfinite

If we isolate the core gameplay loop in Bridge of Spirits and examine it, it’s by no means perfect. It presents itself very safe, with a gameplay design you’ve already experienced in similar titles, but it works and a somewhat challenging combat loop sort of balances the lack of challenging puzzle loop. What makes Kena stand out is how the game presents itself from an artistic design and the feeling you get from experiencing the game’s story filled with trauma and loss. It’s hard to describe, but this is the definition of art itself, and the fact that it came from a first-time studio is mind-blowing. If Ember Lab gives this game a sequel, it’ll be a day one purchase from me, and you’d never hear that from someone like me often.

I cannot recommend Kena: Bridge of Spirits enough, and the fact that my second playthrough was just as magical as the first, serves as a testament to the abundance of love and passion Ember Lab put into this title. We need more titles like this, and if you haven’t played this yet, do yourself a favor and pick it up. Again, I’ve played it twice, and it still creates an immeasurable amount of satisfaction and joy in experiencing the story of Kena, the Rot, and an art design as magical as the inspiration it comes from.

Review Block

kena: bridge of spirits review – just as magical the second time around

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

4.5
/ 5

Great

kena: bridge of spirits review – just as magical the second time around

Reviewer: John Esposito | Award: Editor’s Choice | Copy provided by Publisher.

Pros

  • Mind-blowing visuals.
  • Music is phenomenal.
  • Gameplay is familiar, yet very well-done.
  • Launches with the Anniversary update boasting new Photo Mode options, New Game + and much more.

Cons

  • Minor grainy textures in Photo Mode.
  • While solid, the gameplay does get a bit repetitive towards the end.

Release Date
September 27, 2022

Developer
Ember Lab

Publisher
Ember Lab

Consoles
PC

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