Death and the concept of what comes after is an extremely difficult subject to approach. Some of the ways in which people have attempted to grasp and confront the subject has been through mythology, folktales, and stories. On the surface, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a serene adventure into a lush, open world. Underneath, it's an elegiac series of tales that explores sorrowful stories of death, but ones that ultimately bring a sense of hope and comfort in regards to what comes afterwards. It's a truly beautiful effort from the team at Ember Lab and one that's worth experiencing.
The mysteries of the end and the beginning
Bridge of Spirits follows title character Kena, who is an inexperienced spirit guide. Her role is to bring peace to restless souls and then escort them to the afterlife. She has a few tools to aid her. She has a powerful staff that she can wield against enemies, later adding a bow and a bomb to her arsenal. She also has some helpers, known as the Rot. Despite what their name implies, the Rot are a batch of adorable critters who help Kena at various points in her journey. The Rot can help in battle by binding enemies or by adding some extra power to Kena's other abilities, but they're mostly useful in the field. Outside of battle, the Rot can help clear up corruption in the world, activate certain points of interest, and carry objects. There's also an instance where the Rot hold up a rickety bridge that Kena had to quickly cross before they lost their grip, which was a novel use of this concept, but sadly it's only used once.
Kena's main goal is to reach the Mountain Shrine, so that she can release the Rot and set them free. Before that, her journey is divided into three acts, each telling three distinct tales of lost spirits. Without spoiling the circumstances of these stories, these tales, which unfold over pre-rendered cutscenes, stir up powerful emotions, especially as they hit their climax. The way in which these characters meet their demise is heartbreaking and, just as you're on the verge of tears, you see the tonal shift from a character falling to death to what it means to step into the afterlife. There's a joy in this character no longer suffering, finding joy in reunion, and an acceptance of the mysteries of what's next. The first act, in particular, is a total tearjerker, but one that goes from tears of mourning to tears of comfort. This is a game that beautifully expresses the range of emotions that gaming narratives can evoke.
Spirit guide in training
In Kena: Bridge of Spirits, bringing peace to restless spirits means clearing up corruption throughout the world. Even with much of the scenery corrupted, this game's world is beautiful. It's a gorgeous forest setting, where the greens are vibrant and the rivers run peacefully. It's one of the more impressive visual landscapes I've seen on the PS5 hardware to date to the point that the pre-rendered cutscenes almost look like a noticeable step down in quality by comparison.
Ember Lab relishes what it's created on many occasions, even adding a mechanic where Kena can increase her overall health by meditating at specific points. Whenever Kena meditates, the camera will pan around her surroundings, allowing the player to take in the sights and soak in the soothing background music. As far as mechanics meant to level a character up, it's one of the more relaxing I've ever seen.
Even as gorgeous as the land looks, much of it is corrupted. Cleansing the land often involves clearing enemies out of certain corrupted areas before using the Rot to clean the area. This can sometimes mean sending the Rot into a corruption flower and using Kena's aura to burst it. Other times it can mean turning the Rot into a Forest Tear, which is a snake-like creation that can clear out small bits of corruption piece-by-piece. The only minor issue with the Forest Tear is players control it and Kena simultaneously, which can sometimes give the camera fits.
Kena gradually gains new tools to assist with the game's various environmental puzzles. The bow and arrow add a lot to the game's traversal puzzles, particularly ones where an arrow shot at a distant flower will pull Kena, acting as a grappling hook. Later, the arrows are used for sequential puzzles, where torches or crystals are lit in a certain order in order to progress forward. The solutions aren't always obvious, but the puzzles aren't so difficult that a player can't figure out the gist of it after a few minutes of exploration.
Bombs are added to Kena's arsenal later and feel like a mixed bag. The bombs can take certain stones, blow them into several pieces, and momentarily suspend them in the air in a different position, giving Kena some makeshift platforms. The problem with this idea is that they stay in this position for a limited time and every one of these puzzles seem to have different timers, often leading to Kena falling into a pit. Or worse, it leads to Kena being underneath the rocks when the timer expires, leading to her being crushed to death. On top of that, the bombs are thrown at high arcs and the whole thing starts to feel awkward and clumsy after a while.
Combat, for the most part, is competent. Kena uses her staff and mixes up light and heavy blows against various corrupted spirits. Some enemies require strategy and some of the mechanics that Kena's learned over the course of the game, so offensively, fighting feels fine. Defensively, Kena's given a dodge ability, but half of the time, it feels useless. More advanced enemies can take a big swing and Kena can dodge, but the enemy will then either swing a second time so quickly that Kena can't escape or their swing will have such a ridiculous range that there's no avoiding it at all. The game tries to emphasize parrying with a shield in these instances, but mastering the parry timing feels like more of a bother than anything else. Fortunately, the Rot can heal Kena using surrounding flowers in big battles, if necessary. Nothing about the combat feels particularly bad, save for the final encounter, which spans multiple phases and forces the player to start from scratch if they die at any point.
Sometimes, a story can be so touching that mechanical shortcomings can be forgiven. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is that kind of story for me. The emotions that it stirred in me had me thinking about the game's narrative long after the credits rolled. It's a marvelous tale that tries to bring comfort to a very uncomfortable subject. The characters are so lovable that seeing where their stories go can be gut wrenching, especially given that the game's Photo Mode makes it so much fun to pose for pictures with these characters and have them say "Cheese!" Their resolutions, however, are handled in such a way that it brings about a peace of mind.
Kena's made that much better by its beautiful environments, its thoughtful puzzles, and its series of collectibles. No, it's not necessary to grab every hat that the Rot can wear, but it's fun to keep an eye out for them. The combat has its shortcomings, but it isn't nearly bad enough to break anybody's spirit.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a magical journey, one that I hope everyone will take. I certainly can't wait to take it again.
This review is based on a PlayStation digital code provided by the developer. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is available now on the Epic Games Store and the PlayStation Store for $39.99 USD. The game is rated T.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits
- An unforgettable story that stirs a range of emotions
- A beautiful forest setting that creates a serene atmosphere
- Combat mechanics are easy to grasp
- Engaging puzzles
- The Rot are adorable and fun to use
- Bomb mechanic and its puzzles are hit-or-miss
- The camera gets finicky when using the Rot's Forest Tear tool
- Final boss fight can feel cheap at the end
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Kena: Bridge of Spirits review: Journey to the afterlife
Good stuff Ozzie!
Vimn! I raided with you!
You did, my first VoG!