It’s not often that a creative team focused on other mediums veers into mid-budget video game development, but that’s exactly what Ember Lab did with Kena: Bridge of Spirits. The company was known for its animated shorts for around a decade before it even revealed its first game. Kena: Bridge of Spirits, in a lot of ways, has many of the stumbles and oversights that would be expected of a team making its debut video game, but it’s also a charming enough throwback to an earlier age of gaming.
“Earlier” doesn’t mean SNES or NES as it does with other indie developers keen on mining the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is more evocative of PS2-era action games and wouldn’t look out of place in a lineup sitting beside Jak and Daxter or Beyond Good and Evil.
But Kena’s visuals make it more than something out of 2003. The magical world of the game is stunning at times, often offering colorful vistas complete with lush greenery and impractical, yet gorgeous, structures. Even poisoned areas drained of their lifeforce that are comparatively desaturated glisten with beauty as they borrow more from the purples and reds over greens and blues. It doesn’t often stray from forests or otherwise green locales and could use with more variety, but it’s thoroughly a visual treat.
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The animation helps give the world life, too. Characters aren’t as flexible as those found in Looney Tunes cartoons, but squash and stretch just enough to appear lively and convincingly emote as if they are in a Disney animated film. Combat and the letterboxed cutscenes are the best at showing off the animation as that is when the characters are pushed physically and emotionally, respectively, and show off the team’s animation chops. The way the game moves makes Ember Lab’s past as a non-interactive animation studio quite clear.
Kena’s combat doesn’t control as smoothly as it moves. Like many modern melee action games, Kena has a light and heavy attack, dodge, and parry. It’s a functional base kit that seemingly nails the broad strokes but falls apart in the finer — and more crucial — details. And these details pile up quickly.
It starts with the fussy lock-on that fails to actually, well, lock-on most times, but Kena’s combat has more pressing problems. Her roll looks great but is short on invincibility frames, meaning she is usually vulnerable despite the player’s intentions to move out of the way. Dodges are supposed to get players out of danger and this isn’t always the case with Kena and can often lead to getting juggled multiple times in a string of failed roll attempts. Parrying is also inconsistent because of the absurdly tight window.
Both are made even more frustrating since Kena lacks proper animation canceling. Not every attack should be able to be canceled, but a lot of them don’t have that capability; Kena has to commit to too many of her swings and makes her feel like she’s out of the player’s control. This isn’t Dark Souls so forcing Kena to see almost all of her attacks through without being able to roll or block doesn’t fit with the more action-oriented style of the game. It has the cadence of a faster action game with the internal mechanisms of a more methodical Soulslike. It is constantly working against itself and the player, especially on higher difficulties.
Higher difficulties are alluring as the game is generally pretty easy. Many enemies don’t even attempt to put up a fight and can be killed by mashing the attack button a few times. Cranking it up supposedly amps up their aggression but it’s hard to tell since they’re timid either way.
Bosses, despite their slick designs and unique setups, are the only time when the game snaps the player out of their coma but they swing the pendulum too hard the other way and exacerbate all of the aforementioned headaches with the combat. There are moments where linking together melee and ranged attacks, using special Rot attacks, and nailing weak spots come together and show glimpses of a game with a decent combat loop. But with grunts that are too simple and mini-bosses and bosses that are too hard for all the wrong reasons, Kena‘s combat is almost always disjointed and disappointing.
Exploration is less complicated and also less anger-inducing. Most maps are relatively open and let Kena explore quite freely. The wide linear approach is lovely because it allows players to get lost and stumble upon secrets and collectibles while searching for the goal without a pesky objective marker. It’s peaceful and matches the overall vibe of the game without frequently annoying the player with inadequate controls.
Puzzles are usually rather simple as they don’t have many variables to work with, but serenely saving the little cute (and seemingly ironically named) Rot wisps and collecting different doodads is relaxing yet still engaging. While the soundtrack is quite fantastic and different overall when compared to many of its contemporaries — it uses Balinese instrumentation to great effect — it shines during these exploratory moments as its soothing tempo matches the comforting mood and gameplay of these parts.
The soundtrack also swells during the story bits and is similarly striking but the narrative itself is not. It lacks any strong characters, rich lore, or intrigue. Kena herself is caring and soft yet doesn’t have anything going for her outside of that, making her a poor protagonist for the tale. The setup is also quite simple and hardly gets more compelling as it starts unfolding, despite its attempts to be heartfelt. Its storytelling relies on gradually filling in its (and Kena’s) backstory but very little if it is actually stirring.
There is so little to grab onto and what is there is often anemic and underdeveloped. Kena is emblematic of these issues as her history is hinted at, hardly touched on, and quite bland in the few spots where it does show up. It puts on the veneer of a heartwarming story with writing and worldbuilding worthy of a prestigious animated film, an aspect aided by its strong visuals, but its beauty is only skin-deep as it mimes those cinematic inspirations without the meaning and punch those films usually have. It even mimics the frame rate seen in most animated films (24 frames per second) but that lower refresh speed looks choppy when used in a video game, which further hampers its cutscenes.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a more than passable first attempt for a studio that has newly transitioned to video games. It’s a visually stunning world that is occasionally calming to poke around in. However, it’s still very evident that it is from a team that’s new to the medium, given all of its gameplay inadequacies and narrative missteps. There are glimmers of a truly great experience in here, but it’s hard to see underneath the spots of rot at the core. And unlike the little Rot wisps in the game, it’s not cute as it robs the game of its potential.
As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 7 equates to “Good.” A successful piece of entertainment that is worth checking out, but it may not appeal to everyone.