For some people, Kena: Bridge of Spirits will be a visually impressive meditation on grief. But for me, it's all one big mission to collect new hats for my Rot companions. Sure, I have to fight giant monsters and solve platforming puzzles to do it, but it's all worth it to see my chubby little companions wearing pancakes and frogs and acorns as headwear. Luckily for those looking for something beyond fashion accessories for small magical creatures, this adventure offers plenty to enjoy behind the eye candy exterior.
Release Date: September 21, 2021
Platform(s): PS4, PS5, PC
Developer: Ember Lab
Publisher: Ember Lab
You play as Kena, a spirit guide equipped with only a staff and the ability to "pulse" light as a shield or energy source. You're tasked with helping struggling spirits pass on to the afterlife and clearing a dark corruption that's taken control of the land. That means fighting monsters, climbing, jumping, and dashing your way through the stunning world while solving puzzles and collecting relics. On your quest to release the unquiet spirits you'll make a few friends, deliver ghost mail and face Kena's own memories. It's a big job, sure, but the good news is you have an army of portly pals called the Rot to help.
Friends with benefits
These little guys aren't quite the manic minions that Pikmin are, but they are key to clearing the corrupted areas and navigating the world. Throw them at the big red blooms that mark the heart of a corrupted area, blast it with a pulse of light from your spirit guide staff and book, and the area will be cleansed. Chuck them at heavy items and they'll carry them to your desired location. Hurl them at at enemies and they'll bind them briefly, giving you a chance to attack. With the help of a magical flower that you can find on some areas of the map, you can even have your Rot join together as one big amorphous mass that has the power to slam through barriers.
When you start Kena: Bridge of Spirits, with little more than a few Rot and a staff that's both a weapon and capable of pulsing a special light to open doors and light gems, it feels a bit basic. Pretty as hell, sure, but enemies are easily defeated with the old light attack, heavy attack combo, and the platforming is straightforward. This isn't an open-world exploration experience either, and at most you'll only ever have two or three paths to choose from.
Stick with it, though, and the game gradually adds new layers that elevate the action. There's a bow that makes ranged attacks possible, and it can also be used to tether to giant blooms like a grappling hook. A bomb is useful in combat but is most notable for its power to levitate heavy rocks and parts of ruins, creating bridges and platforms that will remain suspended for a short period of time. You'll learn to dash through magical barriers, which is a handy skill that also lets you teleport to reach new places. The best platforming puzzles and boss battles in Kena: Bridge of Spirits combine these abilities to offer a real challenge – one of timing, precision, and sheer bravado.
There are plenty of smaller enemies that you can chew through easily enough, but the game packs plenty of bigger challenges and enemies that will test your skills and deliver overwhelming attacks. They'll feel almost impossible to overcome until an idea hits you – using the Rot to bind the foe that likes to disappear underground, your levitation bomb to expose a weak point under an enemy's tough carapace, or breaking through a forcefield with your dash. I'm not a violent person, but it made me happy to see a meaty-looking enemy spawn on the battlefield because I could already taste the rich satisfaction of taking them down. As with the Rot, the larger enemies are beautifully designed, leaning towards the organic with gnarled woods and twisted, craggy formations. It ties them back to the story, and even when you're facing duplicates it feels more alive than a platoon of shiny robots would.
Missing a manual
The main problem with Kena: Bridge of Spirits is that, as new skills are introduced, it's not always clear exactly how they work. It's fine not to have text prompts all over the screen as long as the environment is set up to quickly teach you how your new power can be used – the Legend of Zelda games are a masterclass in this – or if there are some friendly NPCs who can offer advice. Kena often lacks either, and it's easy to get frustrated. When you're stuck in Kena: Bridge of Spirits, you're incredibly stuck. Be thankful you'll be playing in a world where our guide writers are ready to offer some help for those moments, because you might just escape the high blood pressure issues I now need to discuss with my doctor.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is developer Ember Lab's first game. Its previous focus on animation shines through in the charming and visually rich world, but a more experienced studio might have had the time to create a slightly smoother set of tutorials to make you feel empowered by new skills rather than lost, to add a few more side-quests here and there to keep the pacing varied and to address some of the framerate issues in cutscenes, and bugs around boss battles. That said, the code I received was a pre-release build, so some of the more minor issues will hopefully have been ironed out.
Rot around the clock
But ultimately, you look at those little Rot and you can't be mad. Despite their limited skills as adventurers, they're utterly charming companions whatever you're doing. They'll be watching you as you clamber ledges, enter an abandoned house, and then they'll already be sitting on the furniture looking cute. You'll collect new Rot by completing significant parts of the story or just by finding them out in the world, hidden under rocks or in pots. You can't name them (in the game anyway, call them what you like in the privacy of your own head) or organize them, and they all have the same skills, but you can give them hats. You'll get headwear for completing parts of the story, finding chests hidden throughout the world, and you can buy them at little hat carts too. It's a minor cosmetic addition, but once you see your Rots running around with beetles and pots and mushrooms on their heads, I think you'll agree it's a brilliant one. The Rot really are a stroke of genius that heighten every other aspect of Kena: Bridge of Spirits, and give it a visual personality that sticks around through every task.
Any technical issues for me were also outweighed by just how much I liked being in the world and learning how to traverse it, even if occasionally it meant my neighbors heard some new swear words through the walls. Some moments feel crafted by the writers and characters designers to be truly special, like when you free a magical creature called Rufus who was trapped by the corruption, or at the ending which even made my withered old heart beat extra hard. Thanks to its storytelling and visual design there's just something warm and alive in Kena: Bridge of Spirits, which is perhaps fitting for a game that is so focused on death.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits was reviewed on PS5 with code provided by the publisher.