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I immediately pre-ordered Kena: Bridge of Spirits during the week of E3 2021 when the studio, Ember Lab, released a trailer not so much about the game, but to introduce themselves as a studio. That trailer won me over to the point that knowing nothing more about Kena than the hopes and plans of Ember Lab was enough all by its own with a chance to support a new studio with a vision for their first game that would eventually turn out to be one the last PlayStation console exclusives of 2021. Though it was originally planned to release in the same week as the Ghost of Tsushima Expansion and PS5 upgrade, it was delayed until end of September, same week that the PS5 Death Stranding Director’s Cut released, though both planned releases had Kena going up against some heavy hitter big names, I am happy to say that this indie title does more than enough to stand out on its own.
This is a story about Kena, who like her father before her, is a Spirit Guide who has the task of helping the spirits of those who have passed on, find their away across to the other side. Set in a world where wooden masks are made to honor those who have died with the mask turning to dust to signify that the spirit has moved on. Sadly, there are occasions when a Spirit will struggle or be unable to move on due to a traumatic event that may serve as an anchor preventing the crossing over which can lead to the spirit becoming a corrupt version of themselves, Kena must then do what it takes to rescue that spirit to free them from the burden keeping them stuck.
During the run up to the launch of the PS5 back in 2020, I remember Kena featuring in all the videos for titles to look out for on the console within its first year. I made the mistake of just seeing it as nothing more than just a pretty game that would like many other PlayStation console launch titles, such as Knack, get lost in the shuffle and easily forgotten. The game looked incredible with its close to Pixar and Dreamwork big screen animation visuals with a story that looked incredible. It really was the E3 showcase video that introduced the developer team at Ember Lab that won be over the moment that it was revealed it was also the same team that had produced the animated short “Majora’s Mask” back in 2017 and you can see how Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the evolution of that story telling.
Quite frankly this is an astonishingly beautiful game on PS5 and PS4 though it really comes to life on PS5. The world is a constant contrast of the lush green full of life environments to the corrupted, horrifying world that comes because of the Spirits failing to move on. The character models starting with Kena and the other characters she will meet and attempt to help throughout the story are so carefully and majestically crafter that once you have played for an hour or so, you will Google search to see if Pop Funko figures exist of them, something I sense will only be a matter of time since the successful launch of the game on PlayStation consoles and PC.
The musical score is also exceptional, blending so effortlessly with the visuals and using the almost feudal Japan style setting of the world and all come together to just create a fantastical world that truly is a joy to be in but of course, Kena: Bridge of Spirits also has a secret weapon that will just melt the heart of any player, the Rots. A name that you would not normally associate with such a world of beautiful things, but the Rot hands down steal the show. Rots are tiny magical little creatures who Kena can and will need to find across the world to rescue them but also to upgrade and unlock new combat abilities because as great as Kena is as a story narrative telling game, it also has a combat element to it, which is sadly also where the first weakness in this game appears.
The combat relies on a light and heavy attack system at first using Kena’s staff but soon expands to have a magical bow form from the staff itself and bombs. The staff is the primary weapon, and a good deal of the combat will be in the melee combat against enemy types ranging from standard tiny grunt types to much larger mini boss level enemies right up to the boss fights which I will come to further down. Kena has a bubble shield that can take a few or one big enemy hit and has a parry system which is very rough around the edges for me at this moment as it can feel clumsy and fails more times than it works which in fights with far bigger enemies can leave you relying on your bubble shield to take the edge of an enemy attack. It just needs some quality-of-life fine tuning to make the combat feel more fluid, the combat system does work but it just needs that little bit of finesse I feel would just complete the combat system.
What I do love so much about this game are the area designs in terms of puzzles with a lot of the locations you have to explore on the journey to help the three main spirits you must help to reach the Mountain shrine. There really is a lovely nostalgia to the gameplay with puzzles to solve, platforming and combat sections but also just good old-fashioned exploration looking for collectibles and Rots to add to your collection. For me this almost feels like a Darksiders style game with various elements all coming together for the most part, very well indeed. The story itself and the pace and freedom to travel to previous locations in the world helps keep the experience overall very accessible and easy to manage for those who like to dip in for a while then dip out but also for those able to fully immerse in the world.
There really is so much to celebrate about Kena: Bridge of spirits even the Boss Fights which can prove to be very unforgiving difficulty spikes which if you have not kept up with collecting Rots and upgrading skills can leave Kena at a disadvantage at a fair few of them leading to some trial-and-error attempts at the battle. These are just blips in an otherwise highly polished first release from Ember Lab and I do think it is a shame that it is, for now, a PS and PC exclusive as this is a world that will do so well on Nintendo Switch and Xbox especially. I would love for more people to discover and experience this game and whilst as I understand it there are no plans for a sequel, I hope this success inspires just that, a sequel that brings us back to the world of Kena because I for one am certainly not ready to call it a day just yet, easily one of the most memorable and enjoying games of 2021 for me.
There are just too many hats to buy for my Rot friends!!