Ember Lab’s highly anticipated PS5 Reveal game is finally here, and it doesn’t disappoint. Kena: Bridge of Spirits. The Finger Guns Review.
All of the screenshots below and the featured image above have been captured in the games Photo Mode.
Sometimes a video game is just magic. A tonic for the world tearing itself apart at the seams, a reason to believe that there are people out there that want to encourage the good in all of us through an interactive medium we can immediately connect to. Ember Lab, at their very first stab at making a video game, have created a joyous exploration adventure in Kena: Bridge of Spirits. An experience I’ve waited over a year to delve into after its trailer being a highlight of the first PS5 Showcase. Video games are cool.
You wouldn’t think this was their first go at bat. Everything about Kena, from its presentation to the voiceover and its cutscenes give the impression this is a first party Sony studio, such is the depth of narrative wrapped up in a beautiful world that’s well worth exploring. Ember Lab, lest we forget, created THIS, so perhaps we should have always known that there was something going on there that we should have been paying attention to. That Bridge of Spirits is a debut game from a studio tells us all we need to know about Ember Lab. They’re going to be massive. Sony should snap them up immediately.
But no, this is an indie game landing on consoles and PC that is standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Spider-Man, Ratchet and Clank and Horizon. If I didn’t know otherwise I would genuinely believe Bridge of Spirits came from a Sony studio, such is the polish and the sheer confidence the game exudes. The aforementioned PS5 Showcase was all the better for its trailer inclusion, and its delays were naturally for the greater good. Whilst it’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and we’ll get into it, there’s a statement about Bridge of Spirits, and one that would immediately birth a franchise at any other studio.
The beauty transcends into the narrative, which immediately catches your interest and seldom lets go throughout. Kena has arrived to a forest bereft of life, broken and afraid as she hunts for the Mountain Shrine. In order to reach this sacred place, the locals brave enough to stay in the forests villages and mountain homes ask she return the forest to its natural beauty before she can take on the path to the Mountain Shrine. Through her journey she meets spirits she has to return to their natural forms in order to bring life back to the forest and rid the corruption that has taken hold.
Kena as a character is immediately likeable, particularly apparent through the games absolutely beautiful cutscenes where Ember Lab are simply showing off, to be honest. They look as good as any CG-animated movie you’re likely to see in cinemas, and that they play out in widescreen gives the impression that’s what Ember Lab always wanted. If Kena doesn’t get a movie or a TV show after this, I’ll be hugely surprised. There’s huge potential here to tell stories with this wonderful, heartfelt and powerful character, and Ember Lab puts her empathy front and centre throughout.
What does Kena feel like to play then? Well, above anything else, it feels familiar. Like an old friend you haven’t seen for years. The ‘adventure’ genre has a champion, that much is true, and it’s easy to compare Bridge of Spirits to the likes of Breath of the Wild, but if anything that does Kena a disservice. It’s not trying to be Breath of the Wild, it just feels like it. There’s been a real lack of games like this on PlayStation for the longest time. Classic, explorative adventures that encourage running off the beaten path to see what you can find. It’s linear in the best way, unlike recent Uncharted or Horizon games.
There’s only one path to get everywhere and it feels refreshing enough at this point that I don’t have to exhaust myself in an open world that feels hollow. The simplicity of Kena’s new world is one that’s enormously welcome, at a time where I don’t have 500 hours to drop into Valhalla, nor would I really want to anymore (he says, after racking up over 700 in New Horizons last year…). It’s got the heart of a Zelda game with the streamlined feel of a Ratchet platformer. It’s difficult to really pin down what Kena reminds me of because its influences are everywhere, but that’s perfectly ok with me. I’m in no rush to argue Ember Lab haven’t created a gorgeous game out of the best the genre has to offer.
It’s exactly why I wanted to play the game in the first place. I feel like I haven’t played a game like it for far too long.
And you can tick them off as you go. You’ll be platforming across ledges with handily marked colours on the ones you can leap up to, you’ve got relics to collect and your powers will increase tenfold the further you get. You’ve got a double jump, you’ve got straightforward puzzle segments that will halt you in your tracks for a second before you realise it’s been staring at you the entire time. You’ve got a map with areas to uncover as you go, fast travel, collectibles..it goes on. Kena doesn’t shy away from the fact it’s a smorgasbord of what came before it, a tale as old as time wrapped up in a serene world you want to escape to and never return. And it shines.
I know what you’re here for. It’s ok, I get it. I’ve taken about five hundred pictures of the little beasties throughout my playthrough so far and it doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. Yes, the Rot, your Pikmin-esque buddies that are cuter than a puppy in a tiny shark suit sleeping under your duvet when you get home from work are absolutely fantastic and a huge draw as to why Kena works.
Whilst at first you may assume they’re just collectibles to pick up as you go like Pikmin, the more you collect it soon becomes clear they’re an essential part of Kena’s arsenal. It’s where Bridge of Spirits comes to life the most, exploring with them and using them as deadly weapons when you need them most is a huge boost to your combat options, with them combining to lay waste to all that lay before them. They’re also terribly handy at moving things around for your benefit when you can’t quite reach a ledge, and also rather deft at posing for pictures. Hence my PS5 is now clogged up with nothing but pictures of the Rot. It’s quite astonishing how, along with Kena’s multi faceted staff, the Rot are really all you have but thankfully, they can create a ton of ways to help you out, become weapons (my personal favourite being the super powerful Rot Hammer), and just generally be cute as hell the entire time, even when they’re combined to smash a monsters face in. Miyazaki would be proud.
Their combat benefits range from swarming an enemy to distract while you charge up your hammer or throw bombs, giving you time to aim your bow on them for maximum damage. The aforementioned Rot Hammer is a barnstomer, combining the Rot with your staff to smash seven shades of spirits out of those bad guys. Early on you’ll need to make choices as you won’t have enough Rot to do both at the same time, and they can also heal you, combining with conveniently placed flowers in enemy battle areas. You’ll need to make choices throughout the combat that allow the Rot to be used at their fullest, and they’re a huge bonus whenever you need them.
It oddly reminded me of Final Fantasy VII (well, all turn-based combat really but that was the first one that came to mind). You’re on the spot and you’ve got to make quick choices before the enemy gets a hit on you, and whilst Kena is strong enough to battle without the need for the Rot, it would be daft to not use them when you need them the most. The healing flowers fully upgrade your health every time, so if you just want to use them as a healing device, you have that option too. It’s brilliant.
And well, there’s very few things in video games this year that have been as fun as unlocking hats for the little dudes. They serve no function whatsoever, you’re literally just unlocking hats for the Rot and somehow it becomes the best minigame I’ve played in years. When I unlocked cat and dinosaur hats I almost lost it completely. Me, as a 34 year old human man damn near weeping at seeing a Rot with cat ears. This game, man.
Aside from the offence, Kena has evade and shielding options. Kena’s spirit bubble (which you use to Pulse the dull corrupted worlds back to life) also acts as a shield in battle, and you can upgrade it to ensure it can take a heartiest of blows the further you get into the game. The upgrade system, paid for with points you get for ‘karma’, literally just being a good egg throughout like using the Rot the stand up fallen statues, shooting down food for the Rot from trees or completing major areas allows you to boost up each weapon option and the Rot themselves so they can be even more badass than they were before. No I don’t need to tell you how an upgrade system works, but the simplicity of it in Kena is worth celebrating, it doesn’t look like a bloody branch for one thing. Seriously AAA devs, stop with the branches. Ember Lab has just outdone your ridiculous systems the first time out.
You’ll need to get comfortable with the shielding and evading system, as it’s fair to say there are certain boss fights that feel somewhat OP. Whilst you’ll take on mini-bosses throughout and even then there’s a part of you that thinks you’ll never survive it (the Rot’s abilities will play a huge part in how well you do against the big guys). Certain bosses have a huge reach, and it would seem no matter how far out of the way I moved Kena they would always knock a few health blocks off me, making it somewhat difficult to avoid losing health unless your evades are perfectly timed to the pin point.
When you pull it off it feels fantastic, and last-minute dodges will ensure you have enough time to get the Rot on an enemy as a distraction and pile your arsenal into their face for a good few seconds. I never felt underpowered during my boss fights, but I didn’t ever come out of them without getting hit at least once.
Exploring in Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a joy, and Kena has a fair few ways to get around this beautiful world she’s found herself in.
Unlocking the arrow function of her staff is a gamechanger, allowing Kena to reach new areas working the arrow as a hookshot, flipping up the sides of walls and cliffs and ‘spirit bombs’ allow you to rebuild broken structures to your advantage, When you’re combining all of the above to reach a new area, that’s where Kena really, really works. Each navigation puzzle is excellent purely because it’s not overstuffed with difficult mechanics to understand.
Bridge of Spirits does a great job of teaching you along the way what does what, so when you’re faced with broken structures? Plant a bomb and watch it rebuild, that will open a flower you can hookshot to with your bow to get to an area you’ll need to climb up a few times before you find another flower that will hook you up even higher. It’s a beautiful system that doesn’t ever feel repetitive. The rebuilds are mostly timed, so you’ll need to work out puzzles fairly quickly in order to get over them, and some have to be hit with additional arrows to fit perfectly for Kena to run across them. Ah, it’s so good.
It’s a good sign when writing a review for the game makes you want to stop writing and go back to play it, isn’t it?
It’s no surprise that Ember Lab began life as an animation studio. Kena; Bridge of Spirits can stand toe to toe with the very best the PS5 has to offer in terms of visuals, with Performance and Fidelity modes as an option, allowing you to play in 60 FPS with upscaled 4K or 30 FPS in native 4K. The latter certainly offers extra depth in the colour and the world as a whole, but I started in 60 frames and well, I couldn’t go back after that. If nothing else the PS5 has taught me exactly what PC users have been banging on about for years and I get it now. Still, Bridge of Spirits still looks absolutely stunning in 60 FPS, allowing Kena to explore this gorgeous world with nary a frame dropped.
It plays out beautifully, and certain moments like Kena walking through wheat fields and watching them fall and stand upright again as she glides past them, standing on a mountain and looking out to the world below, watching waterfalls and the Rot playing around you. It’s a gorgeous world to inhabit and one that Ember Lab have painstakingly created just for that exact purpose.
I’m in love with this world and the characters within. Kena is perhaps the best new protagonist of the year and if Bridge of Spirits is the first of many games we can experience with her, I’ll be absolutely delighted. I don’t want the journey to end here, nor should anyone really. Kena is a warrior anyone can look up to, and perhaps if we were all a little bit more like her the world wouldn’t need her saving it..
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is full of deft imagination, glorious visuals and a story searing with heart. Though if the gameplay is a greatest hits mashup of all that came before it and it’s not going to win over any fans who don’t like to see old school mechanics in their new games but there’s a connection to those games you remember just like Bridge of Spirits here that sparks appreciation rather than replication, and the Rot are fantastic companions that will kick ass with you every step of the way, and put a massive smile on your face in the calmer moments. Your heart swells up every time you find a new relic connected to a spirit, each relic pinged with emotional resonance to its original owner. The stories of the relics being lost plays out in the games astonishing CG cutscenes. You can’t take your eyes off this game.
The warmth and empathetic nature of Kena as a character is welcoming, allowing the game to feel like a giant hug that you’ve been wanting for years, cementing Bridge of Spirits as the best adventure game since Breath of the WIld, and I don’t say that lightly. As debuts go, this is about as wondrous a game we could have ever expected, and I can’t wait to see what Ember Lab do next.
Wow, there’s just so much potential. Video games are cool.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a fantastic achievement, one that celebrates the wonder of adventure games with a story to fall into, characters to root for and a ton of collectibles to uncover. The ‘Now That’s What I Call An Adventure Game’ nature of the mechanics offers little in the way of huge originality, but presents them in a world so full of beauty and wonder you’ll soon forget all about it. The future is bright for Ember Lab.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is out now on PS4, PS5 (reviewed on PS5) and PC via the Epic Games Store
Developer: Ember Lab
Publisher: Ember Lab
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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