Shadows engulf the world, broken only by tiny, shining footprints and the glimmer of a spirit light in the distance. There’s nothing else important here, so I took off the mask. What do I see? A sentient blob with a massive grin and huge eyes staring at me.
These are the planes Kena moves through as a spirit guide in Kena: Bridge of Spirits. Ember Lab opted for a fairly safe, animated-movie-style approach to Kena’s storytelling, but the world she lives in is lush and crammed with detail. Bridge of Spirits doesn't innovate, but it's a unique and beautiful experience nonetheless.
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Stop and Listen
The world itself is an absolute delight. Kena isn’t just a question of style over substance, proving style can be substance. Ember Lab created one of the most beautiful and immersive settings for Bridge of Spirits. Mushrooms sprout in joy when you find a new Rot companion. Wind chimes clatter in the gentle breeze from your Spirit Pulse, and its energy illuminates moss growing on stone walls, crystals, spirits, and everything it touches.
This lavish attention to detail extends to Kena’s audio as well, from her politely asking the Rot for help to cuddling them in a quiet moment. There's so much depth in these small touches, and it makes the world feel vibrant and exciting. Kena inspires a sense of wonder that few games manage to achieve, and perhaps that's no surprise given Ember Lab's past experience as an animation studio.
Unfortunately, Ember Lab's story doesn’t reach those same heights, usually. Kena moves among the living, but almost everyone you encounter is dead, many from some kind of tragedy. Sadness tinges Kena’s journey, whether it’s children who died in an accident and their brother who blames himself, or a lingering soul that's not ready to leave their life behind.
The Rot are Kena’s only constant companions, similar to Studio Ghibli’s soot sprites, but with two legs, undying loyalty, and the power to combat corruption. Ultimately, Ember Lab doesn’t do much with this concept. Not on a wider scale, at least.
Don't Forget the Messenger
There’s a story behind each spirits Kena encounters and her heritage as a spirit guide, but it’s somewhat loose. This world suffers from corruption, people struggle with the balance of nature, but nothing neatly ties them together. Kena is essentially a slice-of-life story, and that’s fine — mostly.
Not every game needs an encyclopaedia's worth of lore, nor a potent message about loss and sadness. These individual stories Kena helps resolve are quite moving at times, and the trimmed down approach is refreshing. "Saying more with less" might be cliched, but its at the core of how Ember Lab approaches its mini-narratives. The problem is that the game simply doesn't follow up on most of its ideas, and Kena herself suffers the worst for it.
Ayu Larassanti’s voice work is absolutely brilliant, adding nuance to Kena’s interactions with the Rot and spirits. However, the spirit guide is very much your typical animated movie hero, the self-assured, smirking do-gooder with a secret vulnerability that manifests at just the right moment. You never quite get an idea of who Kena really is beyond this, or even what she thinks about events she helps shape.
It’s still an enjoyable story, and Kena is a fun protagonist. There’s just a distinct sense of missed potential that Ember Lab hopefully takes into consideration for its next project.
Not the Same Old Tricks
You can say the same regarding its broader gameplay, though the setting injects an element of freshness to familiar mechanics. Kena’s objectives repeat themselves throughout the story. She needs to find relics or memories to help a spirit move on, and puzzles, platforming obstacles, corruption, or all three usually guard what she seeks.
Puzzles cleverly utilise these environment and the Rot’s Pikmin-like ability to move things around. Some are surprisingly difficult to figure out initially, and while platforming is never too difficult, it does push you to take some exhilarating risks. This might be Ember Lab's first game, but you wouldn't know it from how smooth and well designed each platforming challenge is.
Enemies aren't as interesting, not at first, but that quickly changes after the first spirit mission. This corruption spawns spirits of twisted grey vines and while their size or patterns vary, Kena can typically dispatch them using the same methods.
That limited scope broadens substantially once you start unlocking combat upgrades, though. There aren’t too many, but that’s actually for the best. Kena’s later challenges force you to use every tool available, giving you a tangible sense of growth and accomplishment. None of this is technically new ground, but when its this refined and feels great to play, it doesn't have to be.
Bridge of Spirits tackles the question of whether a game is worthwhile if it doesn’t innovate, and the answer is yes. Ember Lab’s biggest sin with Kena is just not following up on the unique identity hinted at throughout the journey, but never developed fully. That aside, Bridge of Spirits is still a rich and beautiful adventure with smart combat and superb platforming, and hopefully, it's not the last we hear from Ember Lab.
Disclaimer: Ember Lab provided the PS5 copy of Kena: Bridge of Spirits for this review.