Kena: Bridge of Spirits – full review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits has been out for three weeks now, and I finally got around to finishing the game the other day. I like to take my time with a game I’m enjoying, so I didn’t blitz through it at lightning speed! I’d been looking forward to Kena: Bridge of Spirits for months, and my first impressions of the game were fantastic. I already knew that I’d found something special in Kena: Bridge of Spirits, but having gone through the full experience I can now say with certainty that this is by far the best game I’ve played in all of 2021.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a rare offering: a visually beautiful game taking advantage of the best of modern graphics combined with an older style of gameplay that feels intuitive and uncomplicated. As silly as it may sound, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is unapologetically a video game – it doesn’t pretend to be an interactive movie. It also ignores many of the tropes of modern gaming: no “expansive open world,” no cluttered heads-up display with arrows pointing exactly where to go, no pop-up tips telling you precisely what combination of buttons to press to solve a puzzle. The game plays, in some respects, like a 3D action-platformer from the Nintendo 64 or PlayStation 1 era – and I’m absolutely there for that kind of classic gameplay style!

Promo artwork for Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

There are three main “levels” plus a brief tutorial, and with each stage the titular heroine Kena learns a new power that helps her navigate the game world, solve puzzles, and engage in some occasionally complex platforming. Each of the three sections is dedicated to helping track down relics and memories necessary to help a wayward spirit so that Kena can ultimately make her way to the mountain shrine. The story is mostly contained within cut-scenes that are seamlessly woven into gameplay, with Kena triggering a cut-scene upon beating a major boss or discovering a memory.

At first three levels broken down into a few different parts might not seem like a lot, and Kena: Bridge of Spirits isn’t the world’s longest game by any stretch. My playthrough, in which I completed the game and found as many hidden items and unlockables as reasonably possible, clocked in at 11 hours and 43 minutes. Anywhere from 9-12 hours seems to be a good guide based on online sources. For £30-35 (approx. $40) I felt that the game offered excellent value at that length.

Kena collecting one of the Rot.

Speaking of unlockables and collectibles, Kena: Bridge of Spirits didn’t go overboard in the way some titles do. Collecting the Rot – Kena’s adorable little companions – didn’t only feel like a natural part of gameplay, but having more Rot on your team allowed for more attacks and more powerful attacks which gave Kena an advantage particularly during boss fights. This made looking for hidden Rot feel worthwhile, and not just like typical open-world busywork in the way collect-a-thons in many modern games can.

There were also gems to collect, which were found hidden in chests, barrels, pots, and the like across the map. Gems can be spent on Rot hats, and while these aesthetic elements don’t have a gameplay impact, it was a lot of fun to collect the various hats and give different Rot different looks. By the end of the game, my 80+ Rot had dozens of different styles, including absolutely adorable ones like a dinosaur hat, a baseball cap, and even a cowboy hat. Anyone who loves animals or cute things will have a blast with the Rot and their hats, that’s for sure!

A Rot wearing the dinosaur hat – with examples of other available hats at the hat cart.

The Rot added a lot to gameplay as well. Kena could use the Rot to heal herself in combat, and the limited number of Rot Actions meant that timing became a consideration, particularly during long boss battles. Figuring out when to use the Rot and in what way added a much-needed extra dimension to combat. Otherwise, Kena had a light and heavy melee attack, a light and heavy ranged attack, and eventually a bomb as well. Each of these could be upgraded to deal more damage or to give Kena extra ammunition, and each could also be upgraded to give a Rot-powered attack.

The choice in some combat encounters was often between using a powerful Rot attack or using the Rot to heal, and it wasn’t always an easy decision to make! My personal favourite was the Rot-upgraded ranged attack, known in-game as the Rot Arrow, as this powerful attack was effective against many different enemies.

Kena using an upgraded Rot attack.

Kena was also equipped with a shield, which could also be upgraded, and a dodge/roll ability. By the end of the game she had also learned one final power: dash. In some boss fights, keeping out of range of a powerful boss who could do a huge amount of damage meant hitting the dodge button repeatedly! As the game progressed and Kena encountered a number of different enemy types, combat encounters became more varied. There were flying enemies, ghostly enemies that needed to be made corporeal before any attacks would harm them, and a range of different melee and ranged enemies, and they would appear in different combinations during combat.

If I were to make one criticism of the combat it would be that there were a couple of random difficulty spikes. At a relatively early point in the game I encountered a boss who, even on the easiest difficulty setting, could kill Kena in three hits. After he’d struck once, Kena was sent flying through the air and before she could recover had been hit a second time. This boss fight took a few attempts to complete, and while I admit I’m by no means the world’s best gamer, I felt that this spike in difficulty was noticeable. The boss was so much more difficult to defeat than any enemy before him, yet after beating him the game seemed to return to normal. It was odd – and frustrating!

This early boss fight was particularly difficult for some reason.

Aside from those couple of particularly difficult boss encounters, combat in Kena: Bridge of Spirits was outstanding. The relative simplicity of giving Kena one weapon – her magical staff – but allowing it to be used in three very different ways was interesting and fun. It also kept things uncomplicated, and I never felt like I had “forgotten” about some powerful attack or spell! Some games which offer a huge variety of weapons in a player’s arsenal can be overwhelming, and when the majority of players only use a handful of attacks at the most, there’s something to be said for keeping the options simple.

Despite that, there was still plenty of variety. Kena had light and heavy options for both melee attacks and ranged attacks, as well as a bomb – and then there were the aforementioned Rot-upgraded attacks that dealt more damage. There were enough options that I felt I had a choice of how to take out enemies and bosses, but not so many options that I felt overwhelmed or that combat was too complicated.

Kena using her ranged attack.

Kena’s magical staff and its different abilities also played a major role in traversing the game world. Arrows could be fired at targets that pulled Kena across long distances, and bombs could be used on certain highlighted areas to create new platforms for Kena to jump across. Arrows could also be fired to rotate platforms into the correct alignment, and later in the game Kena could use her dash ability to cross through portals and even jump across gaps too wide for her standard jump or double jump. Combining different powers and abilities led to plenty of variety when it came to exploring the game’s stunningly beautiful world.

There was a lot of platforming in Kena: Bridge of Spirits, and I loved that. When handled well, 3D platforming can be a huge amount of fun and offers incredibly rewarding gameplay, and Kena: Bridge of Spirits absolutely nailed that aspect of gameplay. Puzzles were complicated enough to not be incredibly obvious, yet simple enough that I never once needed to look up a solution online. I was always able to figure out what to do, where to go, and how to solve the platforming puzzles that the game presented based on what I’d learned through gameplay, and that’s a difficult balance for a game to get right!

Kena has to combine her powers and skills to traverse the game world.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits doesn’t hold your hand, though. After introducing you to a new power or attack that Kena can use, the game drops you into a new section of the map where that power can be used to its full effect. But there are no other hints pushing you in the right direction nor telling you how to solve a puzzle. It’s up to the player to use what they’ve learned and figure out how to get from point A to point B to keep the story moving, and I like that the game is bold enough not to offer too much help.

Many modern games across practically every genre hold players hands the whole time. I’ve played racing games that literally have an on-screen arrow the entire time, pointing exactly where to go, telling you when to slow down, speed up, etc. And games like Skyrim started the fad of having on-screen pointers guiding you to your precise destination. I’m a huge believer in accessibility features for disabled gamers, as I’m disabled myself, but even I consider that some of these features go too far for my personal taste. Kena: Bridge of Spirits was delightfully old-fashioned in that regard. It doesn’t drag you along the path it wants you to take, instead setting you down with all of the skills you need to walk the path alone and leaving you to do so.

Hanging from a ledge early in the game.

Fun combat and great platforming wouldn’t have been anywhere near as enjoyable, though, if Kena: Bridge of Spirits didn’t have an interesting and engaging story holding it all together. I was very keen during my playthrough to avoid spoilers, and the game was definitely much more enjoyable for experiencing the highs and lows of Kena’s journey first-hand.

Kena’s quest to reach the mountain shrine is motivated by the loss of her father, and this aspect of the story was quite emotional. Seeing Kena as a young child at one point really hammered home how this quest has been years in the making for her. At the same time, though, Kena was incredibly empathetic to the spirits she met along the way – even those she had to do battle with. Defeating one of the game’s three big bosses didn’t kill them – instead Kena, as a spirit guide, helped them overcome whatever was keeping them trapped in this world and make the transition to the spirit realm. She showed genuine empathy to everyone she encountered, and while she was on a mission of her own, she showed no hesitation when it came to getting side-tracked to help others.

Kena with her younger self in the spirit realm.

At the same time, going off in different directions didn’t feel like Kena was being sent on some disconnected side-mission. Helping Taro, the game’s first spirit, and Adira, the second spirit, were both presented as the next step to reaching the mountain shrine, and Kena was happy to help both of those spirits along with helping herself and moving her quest forward. The story thus flowed smoothly from point to point with nothing feeling unnecessary or like time-wasting fluff.

The third spirit Kena had to help was Toshi, and he was directly in the way of Kena’s progress to the mountain shrine, so once again this felt like a natural progression of the story.

That being said, I think the way the game was structured meant that coming to the aid of three spirits was probably the maximum the story could’ve gotten away with. Adding in any more might well have made them feel like unnecessary hurdles, and the fact that each spirit had three relics to collect before engaging in a boss fight would have risked becoming repetitive had it been repeated many more times. Three spirits was a good number, then, based on the way the game chose to handle each of them.

Kena helped several spirits while on her journey.

As well as learning of Kena’s father, the game had a number of emotional moments. Each of the spirits genuinely wanted to help their families or the people of their village, and letting go of what was anchoring them made all three cut-scenes after the big boss battles feel genuinely emotional. I may have shed a tear on more than one occasion!

Toward the end of the game, having collected many Rot (and many Rot hats) in different places and in different ways, Toshi stole all of the Rot from Kena after the first of two epic climactic battles. Seeing her lose her companions was heart-breaking – and definitely got me riled up for the next phase of the fight! After saving the Rot and defeating Toshi, allowing his spirit to achieve peace, the Rot were transformed back into their true form, a form which resembled a giant panther or cat. As a cat lover myself, this was an incredibly sweet moment; the high point of the game’s final story.

The Rot – restored to their true form.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits does seem to have left things open-ended, though. We didn’t get to see what happened after Kena achieved her goal and meditated at the mountain shrine, with the credits rolling after she settled down to meditate having saved and restored the Rot. Did she find her father, or information about him? Did she find something else that she didn’t know she was seeking?

Perhaps the game is teasing an expansion or sequel in future, and if that’s the case I’m absolutely going to be there! As it is, though, after the emotional loss of the Rot, the big battle to save them, and ultimately letting them go to restore their true form and bring balance back to the forest, for Kena to just plop down and close her eyes risks feeling like a bit of an anticlimactic ending. We saw her reach the goal she’d been working towards for the entire game, but we didn’t get to see what, if anything, that moment meant to her.

Kena made it to the mountain shrine… but what will happen next?

This could certainly be setting up a continuation of Kena’s story, and I’m okay with that. As things sit, her story doesn’t yet feel complete. I’m wondering what the future might hold for her! At the same time, developers Ember Lab did such a fantastic job on what is their debut game that I’d love to see them tackle a different project in future. Kena: Bridge of Spirits has been a huge success, topping the charts here in the UK and elsewhere, so the studio has the world at its feet. Should they simply move on to a sequel right away, or might they want to turn their attention to other projects?

Overall, I had a wonderful time playing Kena: Bridge of Spirits. It’s by far the best game I’ve played all year, and I don’t think it will be surpassed in the next couple of months before 2022 rolls around! It was one of those games where I didn’t want to rush through it too quickly; I wanted to preserve this moment in time and keep enjoying it for as long as I possibly could.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a visual masterpiece, a uniquely-styled game pushing modern-day graphics to their limit. It’s also a wonderful return to a style of gameplay that has fallen out of favour in recent years. Every element has clearly been lovingly crafted and honed to near-perfection, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is out now for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the copyright of Ember Lab. Some promotional artwork courtesy of Ember Lab. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits – First Impressions

Don’t worry, there aren’t going to be any big spoilers for the story of Kena: Bridge of Spirits this time. I just wanted to take a moment to share my first impressions of one of the games I’d been looking forward to all year!

Unfortunately, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an Epic Games exclusive on PC, meaning I had to finally break my year-long streak of avoiding the company. Long story short, I had a falling-out with Epic Games last year due to getting locked out of my account, and I had hoped to avoid spending money with them again. But Kena: Bridge of Spirits proved just too tempting, so I succumbed and bought the game. It had been one of my most-anticipated games of the year, so I was content to make an exception.

Promotional artwork for Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the debut game from Ember Lab, a studio which originally worked on animation and CGI for film and television. Considering this is their first ever game, and that they’re a small studio, I’m absolutely blown away. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is incredible, and I’d be impressed if it had come from a major developer with the backing of a huge publisher. But knowing that the title is the culmination of years of hard work by a small, independent team working on their first ever interactive project leaves me speechless.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the debut game from Ember Lab.

In the couple of hours I’ve spent with Kena: Bridge of Spirits so far, the game plays beautifully. There aren’t any loading screens getting in the way of gameplay, platforming is intuitive and smooth, combat is fast-paced and exciting, the transitions from gameplay to cut-scenes and back again are well-integrated, and I haven’t found so much as a single bug, glitch, or visual goof.

Kena hangs from a ledge during an early platforming section.

Sticking with gameplay, Kena: Bridge of Spirits offers some incredibly fun adventuring. Kena has all the moves you would expect for this kind of game: she can run, jump, double-jump, and climb ledges. The Rot – Kena’s adorable companions – have a range of abilities, the most useful of which include being able to move objects and obstacles to clear a path or open up a new area for Kena, as well as occasionally pointing the way so she doesn’t get lost.

The Rot moving a platform for Kena to jump on.

Gameplay is all very intuitive, with the default controls and buttons doing everything you’d expect. The design of the game’s early levels shows a lot of thought and planning; it was always clear which path to take and I never felt like Kena was lost. There were some paths that led to dead-ends, but these seem to be areas that can be unlocked or expanded later in the game, so I should be able to return to them later.

Kena in the game’s opening level.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits isn’t heavy on dialogue, and while it was certainly pretty clear what to do and where to go, I didn’t feel the game was holding my hand and dragging me down a narrow path. To give one example, at an early point in the game the camera panned wordlessly over three vulnerable spots that Kena had to take out before she could defeat the main boss during a fight. It was obvious that these three spots needed to be hit first, but the game didn’t say so explicitly, it merely pointed me in the right direction then left me to fight the battle.

Kena takes damage in an early fight.

Combat feels great in Kena: Bridge of Spirits. Kena has a couple of primary attacks and one defensive shield. Using her shield at just the right moment can lead to a defensive parry, and she has a light and heavy attack. The Rot can also play a role in combat, but I won’t spoil exactly what they can do. Combat is fast-paced, but not so blindingly fast as to feel overwhelming. I also felt that the number of enemies present at each encounter was about right as well.

Kena performs a heavy attack on a monster.

The game offers three difficulty options at first, with a fourth “master” difficulty that unlocks after completion. For players who like a very tough challenge, this adds replayability. I’m categorically not a “hard mode” gamer by any stretch, so I’ve been playing on the easiest difficulty setting. I found that to be quite enough for my skill level! Difficulty settings change the recharge rate of Kena’s Rot companions, which will affect their ability to participate in combat encounters, and also ramps up the aggressiveness and damage of enemies. Increasing the difficulty doesn’t add additional enemies into the game.

Kena is hit by a monster and flies backwards!

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is without a doubt the most visually stunning game I’ve played all year. After traversing the game’s opening area, Kena climbed a staircase overlooking a mountain and valley, and I was blown away. I literally put down the control pad and said “woah” out loud! How many games – ever – have made me say “woah?”

I had to stop for a moment when I saw this incredibly beautiful vista so I could take it all in.

The animation and visual effects work are absolutely beautiful. Kena: Bridge of Spirits has a bright colour palette, with sunlit areas that are positively glowing. Shades of blue, yellow, white, and particularly green present a striking contrast with the “corrupted” areas of the map, which feel depressingly dark with faded greys and browns and flashes of an evil, glowing red. Ember Lab’s past as an animation studio absolutely shines through, and the animators’ work with the game’s colours is pitch-perfect.

The contrast between the verdant green living areas and the grey-brown corrupted areas is striking, and the game uses colour to great effect.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits has an aesthetic that wouldn’t be out of place in a big budget animated film from the likes of Pixar or Dreamworks. The game doesn’t prioritise gritty realism over beauty, and what results is an astonishingly pretty animated look to both its characters and environments. Kena herself is a lovingly-crafted protagonist, and everything from her hair and outfit to her magic staff just looks fantastic.

Kena – the game’s protagonist and player character.

Other characters and Kena’s Rot companions also look visually impressive. The Rot – despite their somewhat offputting name – are utterly adorable critters. Their big eyes and cute faces make them incredibly sympathetic, which is important! Their fearful nature means they tend to scatter and hide at the beginning of combat encounters, and in another game I feel like that mechanic could become annoying. But because of just how darn cute the Rot are I actually found it spurring me on! How dare those evil monsters scare my poor little Rot!

Kena is accompanied on her adventure by the Rot. And they’re adorable!

Oh, and the Rot get to wear hats. Cute, adorable little hats. The hats can be purchased using gems that are found throughout the game world – something that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever played a game like this one. One thing I liked about the way Kena: Bridge of Spirits handles collecting these gems, though, is that Kena never destroys or damages property – even in abandoned houses or ruins. She carefully opens a chest or barrel, collects the gems, and then closes it again. No need to smash or break any pots!

Kena collecting gems from a chest.

There’s also a map, as you might expect. The map was easy to navigate and seems to highlight significant points and quest-relevant locations but without being overwhelmed. Some games have maps that you can barely read for all the pins and markers, but Kena: Bridge of Spirits has a well-designed map that’s legible, useable, and fits right in with the rest of the game from an aesthetic point of view.

The in-game map is useful.

When Kena puts on a spirit mask the game enters a static first-person view. This mode allows you to spot Rot, as well as certain quest-specific items. It’s a riff on the “detective mode” present in several other games, but it’s handled in such a way as to feel like a unique experience for Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

Kena putting on a spirit mask.

And that last sentence could summarise my thoughts on the game. Kena: Bridge of Spirits takes established tropes of the adventure genre but gives them its own presentation and sets them up in a brand-new world. The gameplay is fantastic, and anyone who’s played these kinds of games in the past will feel right at home. Where it truly excels is its art style and aesthetic. The designers have to get much of the credit for the unique feel of Kena and the world she inhabits.

I’m having a great time with Kena: Bridge of Spirits! The game has met all of the expectations I could’ve had going in, and at least in terms of visuals it even exceeded them. I would have been impressed if this game had been produced by an established team of developers backed up by the resources of a huge publisher, but to know that it’s the first ever game by an independent studio is truly mind-blowing. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is fantastic – and I can’t wait to jump back in!

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is out now for PlayStation 4/5 and PC. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the copyright of Ember Lab. Some promotional artwork courtesy of Ember Lab. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.