Ember Lab's debut project, Kena: Bridge of Spirits, impresses at first sight. The upcoming action-adventure hits PS4, PS5, and PC in March, but just being able to watch the game's announcement trailer for the millionth time feels like a treat in and of itself, with that gorgeous animation style channeling Pixar and Ghibli in all the right ways. Speaking to our sister publication Official PlayStation Magazine, Ember Lab founders Mike and Josh Grier explain that, for them, the industry's growing obsession with motion capture and photorealism simply wasn't the right fit for their vision of a truly handcrafted experience.
"Using keyframe animation gives us the flexibility to add extra personality to the stylised character we've developed," says Josh. "We invest extra time into the character face rigs so we can add the subtleties of emotion and expression to their performances." Mike concurs, adding that the style "also gives us the opportunity to develop dynamic gameplay animations. Even though Kena's movement is fantastical, we try to give all of her actions and attacks weight and keep the character controller feeling really tight and responsive."
Game Kena: Bridge of Spirits
Developer Ember Lab
Publisher Ember Lab
Platforms PS4, PS5, PC
Release March 2021
But while Kena: Bridge of Spirits is undoubtedly another piece of interactive eye candy for players to put their new PS5 through its paces, it's the influences behind that visual style which are arguably even more inspired. Chronicling the adventures of a young spirit guide who leads souls from one realm to the next, Ember Lab's timed console exclusive draws heavily from Balinese cultures to define its world, characters, and even its music.
"The influence of south-east Asian cultures on Kena can not be overstated," Josh continues. "However, our understanding and exposure to Balinese culture came only after we began collaborating with the Çudamani group. Our composer, Jason [Gallaty], reached out to Gamelan Çudamani with the hope of incorporating their musical style and traditional instruments into the soundtrack. Jason spent a lot of time working with the Çudamani team to build a collaboration that would bring their sound into the game in a respectful way. Through that collaboration we discovered the incredible Balinese culture included similarities with the game's core concept: helping trapped and struggling spirits move on. Music is an important part of this process in Balinese culture and the collaboration with Çudamani helped us build that out in an authentic way."
Despite its immediate aesthetic charm, however, don't expect Kena to be a breezy walk in the woods. Sure, its loveable cast of Minion-like sprites known as The Rot make for adorable sidekicks, and an endless source of slapstick comedy, but Ember hopes players will be impacted by the story's darker shades and undertones too. Kena may have all the makings of a next-generation heroine, but she isn't going to be guiding these spirits through an otherworldly transformation without experiencing her own story of change in the process.
"Kena needs help herself a little bit too," says Mike. "We expose that weakness in her and she goes through a change. The idea of being a spirit is that you have to help these spirits one hundred percent, you have to be fully selfless. But if you're holding onto something yourself then it can hold you back, and that's what comes to the head when you confront some of the more challenging spirits."
Equally, Kena's core gameplay will be as much a test of mystical might as it is a whistle stop tour of Ember Lab's wonderfully realised universe. In order to help spirits let go of unfinished business with the past, Kena will have to tackle manifestations of their corruption, using a staff-bow hybrid to deploy devastating combo attacks against a number of animalistic bosses throughout the campaign. Mike reveals that Ember has been experimenting with the DualSense's haptic feedback technology to make Kena's combat feel even snappier on PS5, utilising the adaptive triggers to "incentivise tactical, thought-out, fully drawn arrow shots" in ranged combat.
"You have a little bit of resistance on the right trigger that tightens as you fully draw," continues Mike. "When you do have the string fully drawn the bow has more power and more accuracy, and you'll feel that tension in the trigger as you pull back."
Those aforementioned Rot sprites will also be on hand to help Kena out across Bridge of Spirit's range of puzzles and combat encounters, with hundreds of individually rendered Rots capable of appearing on screen at once, including those you may have customised with special items or outfits. Frankly, we think they're endearing enough to warrant their own spin-off trilogy, but Ember Lab is instead thinking about where it can take Kena's story next. "The loop we've established where you're helping these spirits and each one has a story loop – that works really well as an episodic structure," teases Josh. "There're definitely opportunities for additional spirits that we couldn't get into this game that would have additional loops you could go on to open up in the game."
It's no surprise that the brothers are already looking to Kena's horizon before her debut adventure has even hit store shelves. Bridge of Spirits has all the hallmarks of a new franchise in the making, one that can charm, compel, and emotionally connect with players through its rich backdrop of the cultural and the fantastical. With one foot in the next-generation, utilising the power of PS5 to enhance all aspects of play, and another established firmly in the past, leaning on the timeless appeal of cinematic animation, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is all set to bring light and life to the first glimmers of Spring this March.
Big in 2021 is GamesRadar's month-long celebration of the new year. Every day, we will be exploring the most anticipated games on the near horizon with brand new previews and exclusive developer interviews.