I enjoyed returning to Kena: Bridge of Spirits but it remains a game I’ll only remember for its storytelling and cinematic aspirations. The uplifting narrative and stunning presentation deserve praise – especially given the small size of developer Ember Lab – but if you’re someone who judges a game primarily on the gameplay mechanics, the experience is less memorable.
Grief and acceptance
Set in a Disney-esque fantasy world of improbable geomorphology and juxtaposed biomes, you play as young “Spirit Guide” Kena – travelling the world wielding her father’s staff, putting lingering spirits to rest, and purging corrupted regions of decay with the help of her unsettlingly cute “Rot” companions. She seeks access to a sacred mountain shrine in an attempt to rid the world of the creeping decay but – in classic video game style – she’ll first need to help the local spirits of a destroyed village before gaining access. While the setup is cliched, the story is not. It’s not just another tale about the acceptance of death as part of a natural cycle but also the importance of the grieving process – something too often ignored or swiftly bypassed in many video game narratives.
Elevating the storytelling is Ember Lab’s adherence to a cinematic look and feel throughout, whether in general gameplay or the stunning letterboxed cinematics. From the soft-edged, organic environments and intricate character designs, to the constant use of death-of-field to draw your focus or obscure any low-detail elements, it always looks good – even if terrain geometry is often simple and texture quality low compared to its peers. Steam PC players also benefit from the fact Kena: Bridge of Spirits was developed to run on the base PlayStation 4 and has since received a year of optimisation patches, ensuring this release is in excellent shape and runs well on a range of PCs from the last 5 years. As a testament to the excellent artwork and cutscene direction, it still looks good – if a little less refined – even on the lowest settings. Complementing the visuals is a phenomenal and atmospheric soundtrack, and quality voice work for the unexpectedly restrained dialogue.
Running on autopilot
Where Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ falters is in how quickly the third-person gameplay and character progression begin to feel formulaic and predictable. As an action-adventure game with a mix of combat, platforming, and puzzle elements, it’s not bad by any means but the gameplay feels incredibly ordinary in light of the storytelling and production values. Combat is your typical mix of light and heavy attacks coupled with the ability to block, parry, and dodge incoming blows. Traversal relies on double-jumps, climbing clearly marked ledges, and using a grapple ability on predetermined points; puzzles involve dragging objects around and hitting switches; the ability upgrades are limited, incremental, and not essential to completion. Even controlling your expanding retinue of Rot – cute as they are – is just a charming, visually interesting way to perform common actions like pulling switches, opening chests, or stunning enemies.
My feelings on the gameplay are undoubtedly a consequence of the number of games I play, but even the pacing felt a little too predictable. Quests follow the classic “collect X of this” or “purify Y of that” approach, platforming sections and puzzles are a breeze, commanding your rot to do interesting things is just a button push, and bouts of combat are interspersed with obvious regularity. Talking of combat, even though the tougher boss fights may escalate in complexity – requiring you to mix up standard attacks, staff abilities, and rot skills – they still follow the same basic pattern throughout. I’m sure it was a conscious decisison to ensure the player is always moving forward but, as a result, I ended up playing Kena: Bridge of Spirits on autopilot for long stretches between narrative beats, with my brain only engaging during a few of the later boss encounters.
Returning to the positives, the world – despite the presence of encroaching corruption – is undeniably beautiful and full of striking landmarks to draw your eye. It’s not a traditional open-world in the sense you can head off in any direction, but each region consists of densely intertwined paths and dead-ends – some leading to story events but many packed with hidden Rot, side quest items, and currency to discover. The world is big enough that you can, albeit briefly, get lost among forest paths, winding stream beds, and mountain trails. The design works well to make it feel more expansive than it is but, on the downside, the more thoroughly you explore the more time you’ll spend hitting invisible walls and watching Kena slide around awkwardly in her falling animation.
What’s in the Anniversary Update?
The last thing to touch on before wrapping up is the new Anniversary Edition content that provides a good mix of new content for those playing Kena: Bridge of Spirits for the first time and returning players on the other platforms. The New Game+ option means you can restart your adventure with all your upgrades intact for tougher combat against old and unique enemies. The “Spirit Guide Trials” are an excuse to eke out a bit of extra playtime with challenges like defeating waves of enemies, tackling obstacle courses, and the chance to repeat boss fights – with the rewards including new outfits for Kena. More interesting for first-time players is the inclusion of hidden “Charmstones” that can be equipped – albeit just one at a time – to provide Kena or the Rot buffs for specific playstyles.
Exemplary storytelling, average gameplay
On balance, there’s no denying Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a good game that’ll satisfy most of its target audience. The storytelling and production values are impressive for an indie title and, despite offering a healthy 15 or so hour runtime (with incentives for replays), you can pick it up for half the price of your typical AAA release. If you’re someone for whom the gameplay only needs to be competent enough to push between exciting narrative beats and stunning new environments, Kena: Bridge of Spirits will tick all the right boxes. On the other hand, if you’re someone who craves diverse and evolving gameplay, you might find Kena: Bridge of Spirits plays it a little too safe to keep you engaged.
A review code for Kena: Bridge of Spirits was provided to gameblur by the publisher.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits Anniversary Update (PC) ReviewKena: Bridge of Spirits Anniversary Update (PC) Review
Story8/10 Very Good
Visuals8/10 Very Good
Audio8/10 Very Good
- A strong narrative focus dealing with the acceptance of death and grieving
- Consistently cinematic presentation
- Enchanting visuals and beautiful soundtrack
- Plenty of content at mid-tier pricing
- The gameplay loop and progression mechanics felt too derivative and formulaic by the end
- Abundant invisible walls when exploring