Kena: Bridge Of Spirits – A Blast From The Past
PS5, PS4, PC
Though the PS2 era could in the eyes of some be perceived as having the weakest offerings ever in a range of different genres, it didn’t mean that there weren’t a lot of contenders, especially when it comes to the action-platforming genre. As Crash Bandicoot and Spyro’s influences waned, new contenders were stepping up to the plate everywhere, from first-party offerings like Jak & Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, and Sly Cooper, to third party titles like Ty The Tasmanian Tiger, Tak & The Power of Juju, meanwhile Sonic kept trying, and licensed titles were all the rage. Very few, save for those with Sony’s financial backing actually excelled, and so, as we turned over the page to a new generation, the platformer, at least on non-Nintendo platforms, really started to dive in prominence and popularity. 15 years on from the end of the PS2, and a new action-platforming contender has emerged, one from a plucky new studio working on its debut game, Ember Lab with Kena: Bridge Of Spirits. There’s late PS1, and PS2 DNA littered throughout the title, but can Kena rise above all of that to be an excellent 2021 title in its own right? The answer is most assuredly yes.
Kena is a Spirit Guide, and as a Spirit Guide, it is her job to assist spirits who, for one reason or another find themselves unable to pass on from our physical world to the next, the spirit world. The reasons that someone may be unable to pass on are typically a little grim; perhaps they’re resentful and feel like they have unfinished business, other times it’s a lack of acceptance of their fate or even guilt. Kena’s mission is to reach the land’s Mountain Shrine, guiding spirits of the deceased to the spirit world as she progresses. The land has seen better days, as a deadly presence has overtaken the land, with corruption taking over the fauna, flora, and even old homes in the area. While Kena’s overall objective is a fairly straightforward one, it’s the stories of three spirits who’ve not passed on that you encounter along the way that deliver the emotional gut-punch for the player. Some of these characters were seriously traumatised by their fates, and so unraveling what happened and how they came to be in the place they’re in is quite impactful.
The story itself is told through some truly extraordinarily realised CG cutscenes. The background of a few key Ember Lab team members is in animation (seriously, check out the extraordinary Majora’s Mask fan-film A Terrible Fate), and it shines through brightly in their work throughout. The cutscenes best highlight their ability, but in all aspects of the game, the facial animations surpass almost anything our industry has seen thus far, the voice-acting is masterful, the use of lighting, and music and (sometimes lack of it) to create ambience is at the pinnacle of what our industry has achieved.
For as good as the game may look, and for as emotive as the story-telling may be, solid gameplay is required to carry the player through the experience, and this is where the aforementioned titles of the PS2 era come into play. As an action-platformer, Kena features a meticulously designed world, with enemies scattered within it in such a way as to gently introduce players to the breadth of Kena’s skillset. The keys to combat success are clearly identified, and when approaching the garden variety foe, execution in combat is something that can be easily managed, but Ember Lab have relied heavily on mini-bosses in the game, and these can be quite unforgiving, regardless of your level of experience. Behind the adorable exterior is a Souls-inspired combat system that can at times treat you with the equal levels of contempt that a From Software developed title can. The bosses, as well as mini-bosses, appear quite often so the game may frustrate players from an early stage, with those bosses not going easy on you. It will take a combination of well-timed parries, dodges, and attacks to thwart every opponent, and as your skillset broaden, it will take those additions as well to best every threat, but despite the difficulty, enemies signpost their moves well, so through a few deaths you should have the knowledge you need to counter-attack and flip the script around.
While the action part of the action-platformer is strong, the platforming half shines a little less brightly in comparison, namely the jumping. Invisible walls are awkwardly present as players leap towards platforms or rooftops they’re clearly not designed to reach, while the jumping, especially the double-jump looks fluid, but the design decision to make it particularly vertical was misguided, not only because it doesn’t feel good, but it makes you think you can reach certain surfaces that the invisible walls ultimately push you away from.
Kena: Bridge Of Spirits might draw upon some aged influences, but the way it assembles the various pieces of the puzzle together makes it feel very modern indeed. The game does dazzle you with its adorable world only to kick you around a bit by its brutality, while the platforming is certainly the game’s weakest element, but overall Kena is an excellent time that’s simply not to be missed.