Rating : 6/10
Come for the graphics, stay for the graphics, and if the graphics alone aren’t enough for you, then Kena: Bridge of Spirits isn’t for you. This is a decent first game from Ember Lab, a studio only previously known for its work in animation. However, it is clear to see why this game is only priced at £32.99 and wasn’t heavily marketed at all by Sony in the build up to release.
The story follows Kena, a spirit guide who helps restless spirits move to the next realm. She comes across a quaint little village that has been blighted by a poison that has spread over the land, and rocked by an unknown event. Kena sets out to discover what is causing this corruption and put an end to it while helping out some lost souls along the way. The game is structured in three acts, each lasting a couple of hours, bringing the total run time from start to finish for Kena: Bridge of Spirits at around 6-9 hours. The story is very simple, which works in a small-scale game like this one. However, it is the characters that you encounter along the way that steal the show much more than Kena herself. The people of the village that Kena helps are the heartbeat of the story, offering up intimate and heartwarming narratives. Kena’s entire character is centred around her being a spirit guide, and although she does get slightly more backstory later in the game, that’s all you really know about her, so don’t expect to get to know who she is as a person when you play this game.
The reason we all came here, the selling point of this game and by far its best feature… the graphics. Playing Kena: Bridge of Spirits is like playing a Pixar film. The colour palette for this game is perfect, with lush green trees surrounding you as you travel through dense forests, having you stop regularly to take screenshots. A particular highlight of mine is destroying “deadzone hearts” (the core of what is causing an area to decay) and watching the colour and life wash over the environment and bring it back to life. Nevertheless, a game cannot get by on graphics alone, which is a shame because if it could then Kena would be an amazing game. Yet the beautiful world that really showcases the talent of the development team at Ember Lab is not enough to sustain interest and investment across the run time of this title.
The gameplay is very simplistic, you could even go as far as to say shallow, once you’ve played the game for a couple of hours you’ve seen all that there is to see from this title. There are two core components to the gameplay here, the combat and the puzzles. First we have the combat, for the majority of the run time Kena has one weapon, her magic staff which allows for melee and ranged attacks. For the melee attacks you only have the choice of light attacks (R1) and heavy attacks (R2), with combos between light and heavy attacks being non-existent. Then we have the ranged attacks, after an hour or two of playing you are given the ability to use the staff as a magic bow with automatically replenishing arrows. I must admit, the adaptive triggers are integrated very well when drawing an arrow, but for me that was the highlight of the combat (and the only real use of the dualsense, which was disappointing). The player also gains the ability to throw bombs in the second act, the only way to block/parry enemy attacks is through a force field that Kena can conjure, although it is not invincible as it comes with a durability bar that once depleted will need to recharge before being used again (there is a dodge function that can be used also).
One of the rare highlights of the minute-to-minute gameplay came in the form of the Rot, adorable little creatures that accompany Kena on every step of her journey. They help with simple puzzles during exploration like moving obstacles on the path or revealing the location of another Rot (there are dozens that you can collect throughout the game). Where they really come in handy though is during combat, once a “courage” meter has been filled they can distract and damage a single enemy at a time, which is very useful as it is easy to get overwhelmed during combat.
Unfortunately, that is where the positives end for the combat in this title, as previously stated the combat is very simplistic, which wouldn’t be an issue if this wasn’t what you spend a major chunk of your playtime doing. There is a surprisingly high number of enemy types, with mini-bosses and the main bosses having more variation in their attacks than the player does. Keeping with the bosses, there are a few main bosses in the game, with one coming at the end of each act. Although more challenging than other enemies, they are still nothing to write home about combat wise, their design and aesthetics however are much more interesting. Speaking of challenge, I must confess that although playing the first act of the game on normal difficulty, in the second act I knocked it down to easy mode. The reason for this being that the combat is oddly difficult for a seemingly kid-friendly game like Kena, and also I was bored, the combat was more of a hindrance and irritation after a couple of hours, nothing more than a tedious obstacle in the way of the next story beat.
The graphics in this game are without a doubt the selling point, with the cutscenes in particular being Pixar-esque. The story follows this pattern, but not in a good way for me, it feels like the story for Kena is just a case of building the world and then just *Insert generic Pixar story here*. Don’t get me wrong, I love Pixar films, however they work very well over an hour and a half or two hours, and this story would probably make a great film if the cutscenes were melded together, unfortunately the repetitive gameplay gets in its way.
A good first attempt by a studio that has only worked on animation, but not enough substance in the gameplay to keep you hooked to the very end.