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HomeNewsKena: Bridge of Spirits is an excellent debut title for Ember Lab

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an excellent debut title for Ember Lab

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Developer Ember Lab seems to have hit the mark with its debut title.

I previewed Kena: Bridge of Spirits shortly before E3 2021. At the time, I only had an hour or so with the game, but felt confident that it was shaping up to be something special. After spending some more time with the final build, I’m happy that my initial impressions appear to be right. I haven’t wanted to put the controller down since I started. Kena’s characters and world hold such a charm that it’s hard not to love them, and the gameplay continues to evolve throughout so that progression feels natural and earned.

Following the titular protagonist, Kena: Bridge of Spirits asks players to guide troubled spirits who have passed on but are still trapped in the physical realm for one reason or another. As a spirit guide, Kena must help these spirits to cleanse the land of its corruption, manifesting in hazardous fauna and flora. It’s fairly straightforward, but it excels in creating compelling characters you want to help, not because the game tells you to but because you feel like it’s the right thing to do.

While Kena: Bridge of Spirits isn’t meant to be long, I still wasn’t able to complete it in time for this review, which will remain an unscored review in progress until I can finish the game and gather my final thoughts.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits review:

  • What’s great
  • What needs improvement
  • Should you play?

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

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Bottom line: Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an excellent debut game from developer Ember Lab. Pulling from legendary franchises like Pikmin and God of War — with a splash of Ori and the Blind Forest for good measure — Kena manages to balance a compelling story with engaging gameplay and a charming art direction to create a worthwhile adventure.

The Good

  • Rewarding exploration
  • Beautiful world design
  • Engaging combat
  • Difficult boss battles

The Bad

  • Puzzles can be unintuitive
  • Controlling the Rot as a group can be irksome with analog sticks

$40 at PlayStation

Disclaimer: This review was made possible by a review code provided by Ember Lab. The company did not see the contents of the review before publishing.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits: What’s great

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Title Kena: Bridge of Spirits
Developer Ember Lab
Publisher Ember Lab
Genre Action/adventure
PlayStation Version PlayStation 5
Game Size 17.8GB
Play Time 7 hours
Players Single-player
PlayStation Now No
Launch Price $40

Right from its initial announcement, people were drawn to Kena’s art direction. Foregoing hyper-realism, Kena: Bridge of Spirits instead takes a stylized animated approach, creating a gorgeous and vibrant world full of breathtaking landscapes and vistas. Though I haven’t made it through every area of the map just yet, I was impressed by what Ember Lab made. While some of the forest areas look a bit too similar, for the most part each landscape feels distinct. Kena can walk from an abandoned village through a forest full of ruins with streams running between them, then turn a corner and come across a corrupted area full of decay and rot. The juxtaposition can be striking.

Its gameplay, likewise, is just as striking. Kena has access to three attack methods, along with a shield bubble that can be used to parry. Her melee, bow, and bomb attacks can all be upgraded through a fairly linear skill tree — I even hesitate to call it a skill tree since each ability just has a few upgrades that can be unlocked. Her bow, for example, can be upgraded so that you can slow time while drawing it back. There’s not a lot of depth to this system, but what really matters here is the combat, and it’s fun.

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Kena: Bridge of Spirits has a diverse enemy pool that kept me on my toes. Some enemies may spawn with a shield that requires a heavy attack to splinter, while others may take flight or even spawn with their own bombs and other projectiles. Regardless, big enemies and bosses all have weak points on them denoted by glowing yellow crystals. Hit these and you can deal massive damage. The trick is being able to expose these areas, and it’s not always easy. Sometimes one can be on the back of a swift moving creature that rarely leaves itself vulnerable, while other times you may have to throw a bomb at an enemy to stun it and expose its weak point. This always made combat interesting, especially as I made my way further into the game.

Combat usually requires you to use every tool at your disposal to be successful, and it scales with you as you play, so it rarely feels unfair. And if it ever becomes too challenging, Kena offers a few difficulty options for players: Story Mode, Spirit Guide, and Expert Spirit Guide. This won’t affect any of the world’s puzzles or environmental challenges, but it will help with enemy combat.

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Exploration is also rewarding, though I wouldn’t always say the reward is worth the effort. You’ll come across chests that dole out in-game currency used to purchase cosmetics for your little Rot buddies, which I’ll get into more later. The real hook of exploration for me was just getting to experience more of the world and finding hidden areas that would grant me permanent health upgrades.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits has a diverse enemy pool that kept me on my toes.

Besides its combat and exploration, another major pillar in Kena is its puzzles. Most of these will be solved with the help of small Rot spirits that you can collect throughout your journey. Rot act like the titular characters of Pikmin, and they’re really cute despite what their name suggests. They can also be upgraded along with Kena’s attacks. A group of them can band together to form a powerful Rot Hammer, battering enemies and causing area of effect damage from its impact. They can also huddle up and help carry heavy objects exactly where you need them to be, allowing you to access otherwise inaccessible areas. Only by using Rot will you be able to cleanse the surrounding areas of their corruption. They also follow Kena around like a mother duck and her ducklings, and I just found that adorable.

There’s no hand-holding here, so you won’t be getting any hints to the environmental puzzles in the game. Some of them are simple enough, but others require you to pay attention to your surroundings. There was one point where I had to shoot four pillars in a specific order but couldn’t figure out which order to do it. Only when I took the time to survey the area did I see candles sitting around a few of the rocks, grouped by one, two, three, and four candles. By seeing which order they were in, I then figured out which order I needed to shoot the pillars. You’re not given specific objectives or waypoints. You’re told in a general sense to “find a way to X area” and it’s up to you to figure out how to do that.

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The story, at least so far, reminds me of Ori and the Blind Forest. Kena has a lot of weight on her shoulders as she attempts to figure out why the world has become corrupted, all the while helping traumatized spirits to the spirit world. Her first mission is to help two young children, Saiya and Beni, search for their brother Taro. You’ll come to find that Taro acted as their protector, looking after them when no one else could. One night while gathering resources, he was hit by a blast that killed him, leaving the children to fend for themselves. They, too, would succumb to the forest, and Kena helps all three pass peacefully, putting their spirits at rest.

Her next job, the one I’m currently still getting through, is to help a woodsmith named Adira. It’s still unclear to me what happened to Adira, but she left behind a woman who cares deeply for her.

My biggest unknown from the story — other than how it ends — is how it will be used to further develop Kena. It seems to focus more on the people she helps than herself, which makes me wonder what will come of her story by the end. I want to see if she’s learned anything from her journey at all, or if that’s all there is to it.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits: What needs improvement

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Kena’s policy of no hand-holding can be a double-edged sword. There are certainly people who will appreciate the challenge, but it some puzzles or objectives just feel unintuitive. At one point I was completely stuck, unable to progress, until I realized I had missed a path in a previous area and went in the wrong direction. The game didn’t tell me this, and I was in the general area I was supposed to be, just on the wrong side of the corruption.

Aside from that, there are times when controlling the Rot can be troublesome. While I don’t remember the exact name of it, the Rot can combine to form a giant animal, almost akin to a snake, that can be used to cleanse areas. You’ll control this using the right analog stick to move the creature and the left analog stick to move Kena. This leaves no way to adjust your view, which can make for frustrating gameplay when you need to back up and can’t see behind you.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits: Should you play it?

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Though I haven’t beaten Kena, I do feel comfortable recommending it after the seven or so hours I’ve played. I can’t speak for the ending of the story, but its gameplay has held up so far, progressing in a way that feels satisfying. New enemies are consistently introduced to keep combat from getting stale, and the learning curve is challenging without feeling unfair.

The Rot and the characters you encounter highlight Kena’s charming world. I don’t know whether it will go down as one of the best PS5 games, but it’s certainly one of the best indie games that the platform has to offer right now.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

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Bottom line: With a compelling narrative and excellent world design, Kena: Bridge of Spirits overcomes any misgivings to be a title that a lot of people should love.

$40 at PlayStation

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