When I was younger, I found a lot of solace in embedding myself in the media I was consuming, whether that was a film, a book, or, more often than not, a video game. As a child with an incredibly overactive imagination, I would devote hours to losing myself in scenarios where I became the tale’s protagonist.
This is why immersive experiences through video games have become such an essential part of my life as an adult. So the second I can’t see the younger version of myself embedding herself into the game, it’s a write-off as an immersive experience and probably not a game I’d want to pick up for longer than necessary. Sure, I’ll have the patience and attention to consume any story that interests me, but if I can’t see myself either as a specific character or living in the same setting and facing the same things, I can find the experience quite jarring.
However, from the moment you step into Kena: Bridge of Spirits, you are transported into a truly enchanting world, and I felt that little spark of childlike glee ignite, so I knew that this would be a pretty positive experience. The initial reaction had my eyes wide, especially since you’re introduced to the character in such a powerful way. I felt myself immediately resonate with Kena and transport myself into the rot-filled forest. Before I knew it, hours had passed, and I’d done nothing in the game but run around and admire the level design.
One of the immediate things I realized about the indie game featured in this Kena Bridge of Spirits PC Review is it doesn’t just feel like a video game. In a way, it feels like a playable movie. Being able to immerse myself into its atmosphere and energy fully felt so natural, which I’ve struggled with doing for a while, especially with a game. I think the last game I felt thoroughly entranced by was Breath of the Wild, and let’s face it – a few years have passed since then. Not to say it’s lost its charm, but I definitely don’t feel the same bewildered wonder as I did the first time.
I’ve spent a considerable portion of my time as a gamer within action-adventure games, so Kena’s premise immediately stood out to me as something I would enjoy. It certainly helped that I spent the majority of my childhood growing up next to a vast forest, so the idea of these tiny, hidden spirits and the secrets beyond the trees was something I grew up alongside.
Let’s Get Down to Business
Our story begins with an introduction to Kena, the playable character and protagonist of the game. Although we don’t get too close to her, we quickly learn she isn’t your standard run-of-the-mill protagonist. Rather than being a hero with unmatched power and unexpected wisdom, Kena takes on the role of a spirit guide. It’s our responsibility to harness the power of being a spirit guide to guide our own journey while helping other lost and troubled spirits find their way.
The entire game challenges Kena to help release spirits in turmoil to ‘the other side’ and finally allow their freedom, but the location where spirits became trapped has been overcome with evil, and thick roots and pulsating orbs now litter the ground of what was once a lush forest.
The visual difference between safe areas and those infected was a great signifier of what was to come and also helped navigate the map when you explore for the first time. If you stumbled across an area with a considerable amount of infection, it was pretty apparent that you’d return for an epic boss battle later on.
Although Kena’s storyline has a solid premise, the communication between characters can sometimes feel lacking. Admittedly, every character you meet feeds into the journey in one way or another, but can occasionally feel forced and are there to communicate something a simple text box could’ve. Much of the story requires traveling from a to b, defeating a few enemies along the way, and scaling the side of a mountain.
There are a lot of similarities to games like Uncharted through the exploration of new land, just without the tense, action-packed, and quite challenging combat.
I wish we could’ve had more space to learn about Kena. As we spend a lot of time with her, or as her, throughout the game, we leave feeling none the wiser toward who she is or why she’s relevant. It’s a real shame as she is one of the most intriguing characters within the title, especially why she was burdened with being a spirit guide, but it’s something we never get to delve into. Although it keeps the doors open for Ember Lab to potentially create a second installment focusing on her story, which I wouldn’t turn my nose up at.
Cinematic Cutscenes Feel Like a Feature Film
It’s evident from the get-go that the creators of Kena: Bridge of Spirits have a past in animation. As a huge Legend of Zelda fan, I knew their Terrible Fate animation before playing Kena, so encountering the cinematic cutscenes of Bridge of Spirits only echoed the ability of Ember Lab I was already familiar with. The cutscenes are so beautifully crafted it feels as though they were entirely stripped from a film rather than being an element of the game’s storytelling.
Nevertheless, they are a powerful way to help bring the characters to life, especially when the story feels slightly shallow.
Each character you meet along your way in Kena has a recognizable personality alongside purpose, as no characters are ever introduced without playing an integral role within the story. There’s a Pixar-like feel for each character and their either standoffish or childish personalities, which feeds into the feeling of Kena being an immersive film-like title rather than just another adventure game.
With each character being fully narrated within the cutscenes, you’re also introduced to their personalities more intimately. The voice acting is so flawless and accurate to each character; it once again lets you forget that this isn’t a film and you’re the playable protagonist.
Easy as A-B-C
However, occasionally, it is hard to suggest that the cutscenes’ quality and sheer breathtaking nature match the gameplay itself. Although the open-world nature of the game helps the world feel like it’s in the palm of your hands, the gameplay occasionally feels slightly stagnant. When completing the central campaign, there’s an extreme lack of challenge, and even combat with a mass of enemies provides no real challenge.
The most complex element of the game you’ll encounter is trying to land a parry against a boss at the right time rather than having your shield break, but outside of that, the game is very much hit-and-run.
Combat is incredibly limited despite playing a huge part in the storyline. Each new area Kena delves into is home to a variety of enemies quick to attack, which sounds exciting, and the intimidating scale of most bosses will send a shiver down your spine, but when it comes to taking to the battlefield, there isn’t much to worry about. Your staff allows you to land light hits and heavy hits and eventually offers a ranged attack through the use of a bow.
Although the animations for each attack look great, the more fights you find yourself in, the less variety you’ll find in your play style. Each enemy can be taken down with two or three light-hit combos, so there’s literally no need to sit back and learn about Kena’s capabilities.
Boss Battles provide slightly more challenge with a much more significant health bar and harder-hitting attacks, which will leave you stumbling to your feet on more than one occasion, but they aren’t hard to defeat. Like Zelda games, each boss has several weak points, so you know exactly where to aim. Hitting each of these will knock a significant chunk of an enemy’s health. On more than one occasion, I found myself defeating a boss within seconds after focusing solely on these spots and then wondering if it was a mini-boss rather than the real thing.
In addition, healing items litter the entire map, and I mean the ENTIRE map. For example, your Rot Spirits are used to reach a blue flower that immediately heals Kena to total health. After a few seconds, you’ll be able to use the flower a second time – not that you’d need to, as your health won’t deplete that far. It’s easy to tell when you’re about to enter a boss battle just from the sheer amount of these flowers surrounding the area.
Though as you progress through the game and explore different areas, you will meet various enemies. If anything, I felt like the abundance of enemies was one of the only things keeping combat fresh. Even having spent over ten hours in the game, I still feel like I haven’t met every enemy on offer.
Instead, there’s blatant attention to detail through the opposition, as you have the ‘grunts’ you’ll encounter often, and then the more vigorous opposition before meeting the intimidating, towering bosses toward the end. The pacing of these encounters also feels like you’re training to take down the most significant enemy, which I appreciated since I tend to run into a boss battle with all guns blazing, which only ever results in my untimely death.
Courage, the Cowardly Rot
Even though combat doesn’t feel particularly challenging, some elements shake up the pretty simple formula. A perfect example of this would be the introduction to courage, which takes the form of tiny golden pellets that enemies drop during a fight. They can be collected by Kena and ‘absorbed’ by the Rot Sprits to persuade them to help out. Since every Rot Spirit dashes to take cover the second an enemy is near, they seem like a pointless addition to the title, but once they become exposed to enough courage, they can be a pretty amusing helper.
Whether holding enemies down while you land several blows or scattering to inflict damage on surrounding enemies, they have their perks.
That being said, I completely disregarded this feature until there were a few too many enemies for me to keep track of at one time. The Rot are great for causing passive damage while you pluck off each enemy one by one, but in a standard boss battle, you may forget to use them until the very end, which is when you will, without a doubt, need them most.
Similarly to Kena’s skill tree, you can unlock new skills for the Rot to utilize in battle, so there is an incentive to keep using them, even if the skill tree is another somewhat forgettable feature of the game. Long story short, the Rot Spirits are really the star of the show for me. While I love Kena and the spirits she helps, the Rot are just too cute not to gush over. Their design is Ghibli-like, and they somehow radiate personality without uttering a word.
To personalize your relationship with them, you can shake up their style and give them tiny hats you unlock throughout the journey. For most, if not all, of my time with this game, I had a small army of mushroom-cap Rot, and it just added to my experience.
Learning to Walk Before You Can Run
Due to the adventure element of the game, the controls hugely revolve around movement and exploration. Because of this, the controls are incredibly accessible and easy to remember. As you grow alongside Kena, new controls and mechanics are introduced and applied through brief yet thoughtful tutorials.
Rather than feeling like an entirely separate slice of gameplay, these tutorials are carefully implemented into the story by introducing new characters, discovering new areas, and completing either shrines or time-based trials to get to grips with everything.
I find tutorials can be incredibly jarring, especially in adventure games. If I’m mid-climb, swimming, or generally exploring, the last thing I need is a massive box of text flashing up and pulling me out of my experience. Although Kena has this text box, getting to grips with these skills in the same way you’d play through the game made the entire thing much more enjoyable. Additionally, there isn’t a text overkill, so you can quickly understand what’s needed before jumping back into the action.
There are many mechanics to keep gameplay fresh, and you’ll constantly find yourself learning and utilizing new skills, which I appreciated. Even though combat is simple, there is much more to the game than just throwing hands. For example, I adore a game with a good bow mechanic, and if there’s a way you can use this bow to slow down time and land a perfect shot, I’m all for it. Discovering this skill in Kena had me unlocking it almost immediately, so I’m glad I had enough points to do so.
Leaving No Stone Unturned
However, Kena: Bridge of Spirits never feels finished. This sounds like a con, but it’s not meant to reflect the appearance or content. As a whole, it’s undeniably a neat little package of enchantment, but it leaves you wanting more. And there’s more than enough content outside the story to keep you coming back and continuing your journey.
I’m a completionist. I set out to correct every Korok in Breath of the Wild, and it has taken me years, but I still have my heart set on the goal. So similarly, Kena quickly made me feel like I needed to find every Rot spirit across its expansive map. Not to mention the scale of other collectibles and locations to discover. Luckily, each area comes with a neat little checklist to consistently refer to each time you feel that bit closer to seeing everything there is to see.
Unlike other games where collectibles are hidden in plain sight, Kena makes it a challenge in itself, which is one of the only challenges of the game. Rather than having everything on one level, the depth in which Bridge of Spirits has you climbing, or traveling between the canopy, will have you exploring for hours. I found it so easy to get distracted from the main story in favor of finding Rot or collecting hats, which I would usually see as a downside, but the landscapes of this game make the adventure so worth it.
The feeling of finding a new location in an open-world game is essentially how the entire experience of Kena feels. Each new location will have you in a trance for a few minutes before jumping back into the story. However, these maps are incredibly easy to get lost in, especially with the number of twists and turns to keep you distracted from getting from point A to point B. In addition, there are hundreds of puzzles to go back and solve, which the Rot is really helpful in helping you solve, all presenting new rewards like hats or currency to use in the game’s cosmetic shops.
The Sounds of the Overground
The soundtrack to your entire adventure is one of the most significant selling points to me. I’m a sucker for a soundtrack that doesn’t feel invasive or distracting to the gameplay yet subtly aids the storytelling and triggers an emotive response while you’re playing. Again, this is something Kena massively nails.
It’s never repetitive, nor does it feel grating or in the way while you’re running around the map trying to find where you need to be. Instead, it’s subtle enough to go unnoticed during these quiet, reflective moments. Then, it picks up the tension with an orchestral build before hitting the peak.
There are so many intricacies to the soundtrack that echo the gameplay perfectly and feed into this idea of Kena being a playable movie. It’s not the kind of soundtrack you expect from anything other than a Triple-A studio. On more than one occasion, I had to gently remind myself that this was an indie game with an indie budget and an indie sound designer.
Only a few soundtracks from games have stood out to me enough to make me want to listen to them outside of the game. One is Journey, another is Undertale, and I can happily say that Kena has joined the mix. Even outside of playing the game, the soundtrack is so appropriate during its showcase in the game you can pinpoint exactly where you were the first time you heard it.
This might interest you: Comprehensive Guide to the Best Indie Soundtracks.
The Verdict: 8/10
It’s safe to say that Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a game I’d recommend to anyone searching for the next Breath of the Wild-like adventure. While it may not have the same budget or sometimes the same quality, it definitely comes close. It’s an outstanding balance of emotional, heart-wrenching story and hands-on exploration, and there’s so much to keep you captivated for hours at a time.
That being said, it’s impossible to suggest that Kena: Bridge of Spirits doesn’t have its flaws. Aside from the massive lack of challenge in combat or general puzzle-solving, the story sometimes feels incredibly predictable and shallow. Sure, the characters keep it going, but there were times when I knew the twists before they happened. These instances weren’t detrimental to my experience but were enough to knock a few points from the final score.
- Incredible landscape to get lost in
- Unique, charming cast of characters
- Astounding soundtrack
- Accessible controls
- There’s just not much challenge
- The story sometimes lacks in depth
Kara has spent over fifteen hours exploring the forest and discovering hidden rot spirits while mastering the power of the spirit bow and slowly climbing up the skill tree. She’s faced everything from towering, werewolf-like entities to mountain-dwelling driftwood monkies and is still finding new areas of the woods to spend hours daydreaming in. Sure, she may not be able to pull off the perfect slow-motion bow shot, but she will keep practicing no matter how many hours it takes.
While her rot may still be sporting the same mushroom hat for the entire journey, Kara is slowly exploring Kena’s wardrobe to customize her journey and make sure she looks the part while taking on the opposition of the spirit realm. However, it’s safe to say she’s not quite finished exploring yet, and there’s a chance she won’t be for a while.
- Horizon Forbidden West
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
- The Gunk
- The Pathless
- Ori and the Will Of The Wisps
Question: Is Kena: Bridge of Spirits on Nintendo Switch?
Answer: No, Kena hasn’t made it to Nintendo Switch yet, and there aren’t any plans for it either. It was initially released on PlayStation and then received a PC port, but it hasn’t hit any other consoles. As much as I would love to see this game on the Switch, I think the visuals would lose much of their detail and charm.
Question: Is Kena: Bridge of Spirits Suitable for children?
Answer: Despite its adorable, almost Pixar-like character design, Kena covers some brutal themes which might be slightly unsuitable for kids. The game isn’t recommended for anyone under thirteen, which is worth keeping in mind if you’re looking for a title for your little one.
Question: What other games has Ember Lab made?
Answer: Surprisingly, this is the first and only game released from Ember Lab. I’d love to see them produce something else in the future, especially since they were so devoted to the game’s visuals and sound.
Before creating Kena, the developers spent a lot of time in animation, which explains why there is such attention to detail within gameplay. I really hope there is a future for the guys at Ember Labs, as I would love to devote my time to another experience like that with Kena.