Hop on the Hype Train—Kena’s One to Watch
As I set the controller down following a hands-on preview of Kena: Bridge of Spirits hosted by Tribeca, I couldn’t help but smile.
We’ve seen quite a bit of Ember Lab’s upcoming action-adventure game over the past year. The game commanded plenty of attention in recent State of Plays, as Sony continues to position it as a showcase title for the PlayStation 5. (It’s also coming to PC and PlayStation 4, but that’s not nearly as juicy a headline.) Given these blockbuster expectations, it came as a surprise to many that Kena will be released at a budget price point of $39.99.
Naturally, I set my expectations accordingly. As good as the game’s announcement and story trailers looked, I felt like there must be a catch. Either the game was far smaller in scope than its teasers suggested, or it wouldn’t play like an adventure worthy of Sony’s pedigree.
Now, having played close to 90 minutes of the game, I can say with confidence that I was wrong. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the real deal.
A Visual Feast
A large part of why Kena has wowed thus far is its striking art and jaw-dropping tech. The game evokes a Pixar-like quality in its 3D animations, and portrays a world that’d feel right at home in a Studio Ghibli flick.
Playing through an early segment of the game, I’m happy to report that these visuals aren’t just for show. They’re indicative of an overall quality and polish that could rival the PS5’s strongest games to date.
Despite a rocky streaming experience, I was immediately able to appreciate the lush colors, gorgeous lighting, and impressive effects on display in Kena. Following a particularly impressive intro sequence, I was free to roam the game’s semi-open environment in search of a spirit named Taro.
It might seem like folly to put Kena in the same ring as AAA titles like Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and Horizon: Forbidden West. But Ember Lab—no stranger to great animation work—is clearly punching above its weight class with its debut title. It looks that good.
More Than Just Its AAA Aesthetic
Structurally, Kena feels right at home with Sony’s pantheon of story-driven action games. As I climbed a mountain and battled evil mystical spirits, I began to see some of the similarities between Kena and these games—and how Ember Lab is carving out a space all its own.
As Kena (pronounced KAY-NAH), I had access to a fairly straightforward array of moves and tricks. I could jump, dodge-roll, shoot arrows, and swing a spear for light and heavy attacks. While traversing the mountain side, I’d find white-marked surfaces I could scale, often with secrets—chests, meditation spots, etc.—lying just around the bend.
From Uncharted’s platforming segments to Horizon’s bow and arrow action, Kena: Bridge of Spirits doesn’t shy away from its influences. Throw in the whimsical tone of Ori and the Blind Forest, the cute forest critters of Pikmin, and the lock-on, dodge-heavy combat of Dark Souls, and you have an ambitious AAA cocktail.
For those reading, that may sound like a rather unwieldy mixed drink. Yet, based on my experience, these mechanics blended well, with a cohesion and polish that allowed Kena and her forest companions to shine. While the segment I played was fairly linear, a world map and series of warp nodes suggest Kena could be a fairly sizable experience.
Cute, But Surprisingly Tough
Through Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a feel-good game—you can equip the forest spirits you find with adorable hats—it’s not a pushover.
Combat had me fighting against a variety of enemies, each with its own weaknesses to exploit. One foe, for example, had a shield you could only bypass with a heavy attack. Another would burrow into the ground, requiring you to send your spirits—known as Rot—at the enemy to stun them. You can also use your Rot to heal you, destroy enemy nests, and perform powerful charge attacks.
It sounds like a lot, but I soon found a rhythm with Kena’s combat. It’s not the most complicated affair, and before long I found myself exploiting the same enemy weaknesses, ad nauseum. (In fairness, there’s a skill tree that may add some welcome depth.)
Where the challenge lies, though, is in Kena’s hard-hitting bosses. The demo’s final boss was especially tough, even on “normal” difficulty, requiring spatial awareness, tight dodging, and speedy reflexes to defeat. I’m not ashamed to say I failed to beat it by the time my demo expired.
A Contender in the Making
I’m pleasantly surprised by Kena: Bridge of Spirits. It’s not a AAA game, but it sure looks and feels like one. What’s more, it walks that line between linearity and openness, making for a world that feels sizable without the typical bloat.
My experience wasn’t without issue. I struggled with the game’s camera, especially when fighting multiple foes. I also encountered a nasty bug while using my bow to grapple to a tree—resulting in Kena getting flown across the map. Perhaps most importantly, I have my doubts whether fights will stay fresh from start to finish.
Combat concerns aside, there’s more than enough reasons to get excited about Kena. It looks great, sounds even better, and could well be a sleeper hit for the PlayStation 5.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits releases August 24, 2021 for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, and PC.