Kena: Bridge of Spirits is what I’d call a “You Should Give Us Money” project.
That’s not a criticism, and it’s not meant to undermine or demean the work of Ember Lab’s first foray into video games. (They’re not entirely new to video games or the space though; the studio was responsible for the groundbreaking Majora’s Mask animated short a few years back, and the anime, sci-fi inspired Dust.) I’m only describing Kena: Bridge of Spirits in such a brusque way because it reflects what will happen in the coming weeks and months if it hasn’t been already.
Simply picture this. Ember Lab emails footage from Kena, with an attached pitch, to publishers of their choice. “This is what we can do,” such an email or message might say.
“This was our first video game. Give us a little more support and funding, and just imagine what your IPs could look like.”
They could leave it at that, and doors industry-wide would open for them, if they haven’t already.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is not a perfect game by any means. The environmental puzzling drags on, returning to its own tricks far too often. Some of the controls are prohibitively archaic. And if you’re looking for Ghibli-level inspirational narratives, you won’t find much. Rocks for climbing are stained white, straight out of the Uncharted playbook. And fans of Horizon Zero Dawn‘s archery will be exceedingly comfortable with the combat.
But Kena’s strength — both immediately apparent from the day the game was revealed and through any cursory check of Ember Lab’s history — is the craft of its world. That extends not just to Kena’s character design, which echoes some of the best Dreamworks films more than Studio Ghibli’s work, but the animation and motion underpinning it all.
It’s the sort of game that you’d see in a shop window, at least pre-COVID. It is persistently adorable, from its Princess Mononoke-style Rot spirits to the way Kena herself flows in combat, the impressive fidelity of the world’s lighting, foliage and village design, and the consistently pleasant nature of almost everything you do.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is not a game made for children. But it does have many moments of childlike wonder throughout, even if there are parts where Ember Lab’s inexperience and the natural first-game woes disturb that charm.
You play as Kena, a spirit guide who is en route to a nearby village. You’re not given an enormous amount of detail from the off, and your first introduction to the village is via a masked elder figure, voiced by the peerless Masashi Odate. The mountain and its surrounding forests and villages have been corrupted throughout, with the ghosts of tormented spirits left behind for a multitude of reasons — grief, an inability to cope with change, or simply refusing to accept the reality of change. You’re usually only dealing with one particular villager’s torment at a time, which provides a chapter-like structure to Kena’s narrative.
Kena’s own story, perhaps appropriately given her career as a medium, takes a backseat for a solid chunk of the game while you resolve the villagers’ torment. Her twist is delivered much later, and while it’s serviceable in the grand scheme of things, it means you spend at least the first five or six hours — more than half of my total playthrough — dodging and shooting possessed bark without having a solid grounding in what exactly brought Kena to this forsaken land.
It’s a good thing, then, that the shooting works so well.
Kena has a relatively small but versatile skillset. She starts off with basic melee/heavy attacks and some minimal assistance from the Rot, the scattered forest spirits who are surprisingly handy in their own right. Outside of combat, their utility is mostly around moving heavy objects, pulling levers and generally following Kena like she’s their mother. But in combat, they’re essential.
At first, the Rot can target an enemy creature, effectively stunning them for several seconds. You’ll steadily grow out of their kit, however, to power up some of your existing attacks at the expense of a consumable Rot action. Rot actions are basically a gamified version of courage for the tree spirits: they don’t want to fight, but if Kena hangs around long enough and gets plenty of hits in, they’ll muster up the energy to help out.
It’s actually really fitting thematically, and later on, you can purchase an upgrade that ensures you always start a battle with at least one Rot action. That’s probably one of the most essential upgrades in the game too, given the only way you can heal mid-fight is by burning a Rot action. Most battles will typically have one luminescent blue flower nearby; mini-boss and major boss battles often have two.
These don’t recharge in battle, and you can’t harvest the flower yourself. It’s not usually a problem for most fights, save for one key fight towards the end against a hovering archer that constantly dashes out away. (You can slow time occasionally when using your bow, but it’s limited, and since your Rot meter only recharges with every successful hit, it makes for a surprisingly tense encounter.) Along with the bow you have energy bombs, borrowed in function and form almost straight out of Breath of the Wild. There’s an energy shield that doubles as your parry and a dash in a pinch, but for the majority of proceedings, the standard dodge roll is fast enough for most purposes.
There’s a neat flow to the combat, especially when the bow and bombs are both available. The bombs can be triggered by shooting them directly, which does more damage after an upgrade, or remotely by pressing with Kena’s pulse ability (the game’s equivalent of a use key, more or less).
That flexibility means you can quickly tag an enemy with a nearby bomb, but you have the freedom to dodge out of the way if needed. If you’re not focused on purely staying alive, it’s a powerful tool for clearing trash monsters or using as a delayed effect to stagger larger enemies in their attacks. All of these, by the way, are fired when you’re looking down the sights of your bow. So you can dodge out of the way, tell the Rot to stun an enemy, fire an arrow at them, scattering the attack to all other foes in the area, lay a bomb on another foe, roll out of the way, and then slow down time to one-shot a ranged attacker in the distance.
If I’m being critical, it’s that none of this is necessarily original. But it feels unnecessarily harsh to apply that standard too stringently to Kena, a first-time production from a smaller indie developer, especially when so much the games it mirrors were equally liberal in their inspiration.
What’s more important is whether it works in concert, which Kena absolutely does.
It also helps hone in Kena’s strengths and where Ember Lab has invested so much effort: the animations and the environment. The latter is especially lush with blues, greens and browns, with the occasional warmer colors often shining through in the many lanterns scattered throughout, the glowing weak points of enemies or the mahogany from the corruption throughout.
Kena’s overall fidelity, though, isn’t picturesque to the same degree as something like The Artful Escape. The game’s beauty is often brought crashing to a halt by odd graphical glitches, either through an unusual artifacing shimmer that sometimes appears on the Rot or Kena herself. Other egregious instances always involved water: you’d have a perfectly lovely forest environment, only for the layering of the water to be distractingly simplistic. That’s not to mention a persistently ugly borderline that appeared at the edge of any water surface.
It wouldn’t ordinarily be noteworthy, but that’s the downside of doubling down on the aesthetic. When almost every other surface, texture and character have such smooth movements and pleasingly crisp details, anything that falls short sticks out.
That aside, Ember Lab’s skill in character animation — from micro-movements like the gestures and shrugs of the Rot or the ghosts of spirits past to the relentlessly refined cut scenes — is evident throughout.
On a functional level, most of your time won’t be spent in combat. It’ll be the puzzling and exploration, not necessarily getting from point A to point B but the discovery of crystals, hidden Rot spirits and bonus chests scattered throughout. I didn’t play Kena with the intention of perfectly clearing the game, but even a regular playthrough will still spend a good chunk of time organically checking alternate paths, hunting down little surprises.
It reminds me of older PS1 or Nintendo 64-era platformers, games like Spyro The Dragon, Ty The Tasmanian Tiger, or more recent spins on the 3D platforming, collect-athon experience like Super Lucky’s Tale or Yooka-Laylee. Naturally exploring the world is supposed to be as much fun as saving it, and for the most part, Kena: Bridge of Spirits accomplishes that.
Some glitches on annoying jumping puzzles sour parts of the experience. Some of the Rot handling mechanics could definitely be reworked, or as I’ve already argued, redesigned completely. And the second half of the game is excessively reliant on having you levitate platforms by throwing bombs, shooting glowing crystals to rotate other platforms, and then doing it all fast enough before they all fall down. It’s fine, only that the puzzles aren’t especially clever and the formulaic design begins to grate once you’ve hit the seventh or eighth hour.
But this doesn’t fundamentally disqualify the Kena: Bridge of Spirits experience. It’s mechanically comforting and a constant visual pleasure, albeit lacking in a little ambition. And that familiarity isn’t without the odd surprise. Some of the boss fights are genuinely entertaining, and some well-considered restraint from Ember Lab means they’re not padded with excessive phases or obscene health bars. The attack patterns are all relatively readable too, so you shouldn’t get endlessly stuck on any one particular fight — save for the final boss fight, which is unnecessarily stingy with health.
As a story, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a warning about grief and the damage it can do to ourselves, our loved ones and the world around us. It’s a message about letting go and respecting the need for change, something I’m deeply keen to see from Ember Lab. Kena shows enough promise and reverence for some of the biggest third-person games. But what will be truly special is when the studio moves past that to craft more of their own identity.
The studio has an abundance of promise and talent. The fascinating part is which publisher will channel that first.
This article originally appeared on Kotaku Australia.