It’s easy to sense the pedigree within Kena: Bridge Of Spirits.
Ember Lab, founded by brothers Mike and Josh Grier, began life as an animation and digital content studio. While they had worked on several animated commercials and branded game applications, they also did things like release a viral video based on The Legend Of Zelda: Majora’s Mask titled Terrible Fate. They came together with their development team and thought “Hey!”, creating a video game seems like the “natural next step”. Pitching to market, Ember Lab were then acquired by Sony Interactive Entertainment in late 2017.
And now they’ve released their first title Kena: Bridge Of Spirits.
“But Xenojay, the pedigree??”. Well, yes that’s their animation background. The first thing you notice when booting into Kena is how GORGEOUS it is. Like, it’s “playable Sony Pictures Animation” gorgeous. The title screen doesn’t really give it away, gently nudging you into opening the game to see what’s on show. The world then captures you immediately from loading. Well-realised environments surround Kena, as beautiful green pastures dance around them while they travel the land. Old villages somewhat broken, yet nothing a good brush (or spirit) won’t fix. And wonderful water environments, which pass my seal of approval because water can always look a bit rough, help the game feel like it’s concept art which has jumped off the page.
Animation and lighting is well done. Cavernous systems ask Kena to light them, which adorns them in blue and white hues upon summoning. The sun’s flare when at the right angle is a delight to play with in the games Photo Mode. And animation is robust, following Kena’s every step across the land. While it can be clunky, with cancels not in play for movement like dodging, it doesn’t take away from the game at all. In fact, it almost reinforces imagery of it being an homage to earlier third-person titles. And when it does little things like Kena passing her staff between hands to switch to a different use for it, I find it hard to be too harsh on it.
Gameplay wise, it’s as I said formerly; The “homage to earlier third-person titles” stands out even when you factor in the adorable Rot. Tiny creatures which ease the burden of passage for Kena, they move the immovable objects they may come across. Kena also wields a double jump, tweaked in a way which generates a sort-of sense of realism. When performing it, there’s a SLIGHT reduction to momentum which means the upward movement is enough to reach what they’re aiming for, but not enough for them to reach other potential out of bound areas. Combat is fine, but repetitive combos and a lack of punch means you’re never overly-confident in battle. That is, until you unlock different moves and enhance how the Rot can attack.
While they may help with the environment, they also provide crucial support in battle. You’ll find corrupted areas which require the Rot to show their true form. This form allows you to purify these areas, while also changing how Kena moves. Like a marionette act, you move Kena with the L-stick, and the Rot with the R-stick. It’s a fun dance to get used to, especially with how energy spent affects amount of time to use it.
Kena: Bridge Of Spirits does right well.
For a first game from a relatively new studio, Ember Lab has delivered a title worthy of its price tag. So far, I’ve put about 6 hours in, and I don’t think I’m anywhere near finishing. Maybe that’s due to the way I play, but I feel the game invites you to enjoy the journey. If you were excited by the earlier trailers of the game, then I do implore you pick it up. While it’s not a revelation, it does what it intends to do so well, that it deserves the attention it’s getting. And I really do hope we get to see the world expand in future.
Honestly, Kena: Bridge Of Spirits plays like the title I saw in its trailers. While some of the janky gameplay can seem rough, the overall experience is a stunning nostalgia trip through the great titles of third-person platforming yesteryear. Beautiful graphics sell you on the journey, along with an incredible soundtrack, for a first game which any developer should be proud of.
XENOJAY.COM was supplied with a digital copy for review by Ember Lab, and this was played on the Playstation 5 console. But I also bought my own copy to play from Day One, lol!