Sometimes we need a game to take us away. For some gamers, it’s a massive open-world or breeding the perfect shiny Pokémon. Sometimes even getting the best hand at Hearthstone can make you forget about the things that are really plaguing you. I am usually one for MMO’s, where I can craft or quest or run old raids for fun. However, I also don’t mind the odd linear adventure, especially if it is as picturesque and calming as Kena: Bridge of Spirits is. Kena was perfect for where I was in my personal life. We are all feeling the effects of the pandemic, work is stressful, and I am dealing with other mental health issues. In other words, I just needed a place to get away, and Ember Lab sure delivered.
A simple, beautiful escape from reality!
It’s just so beautiful!
If you didn’t know, Ember Lab, the development studio behind Kena, started out as an animation studio. It shows. Everything in this world feels alive, and Kena, her body language, the way she walks, runs, jumps and fights, shows the deep experience one would only find in an animation studio. The world around her is beautiful, filled with small details, gorgeous plants and huge trees… never mind the little helpful and wonderfully animated creatures known as Rot.
The Rot (besides being the cutest little creatures known to humankind) help Kena on her adventure by moving objects to help her solve puzzles, bring her health in battle, and clearing up the dead bits of the forest helping Kena bring back beauty as she progresses through the game. You can even give them cute hats. They follow you around and as you move through the game it’s a joy to watch them hot on your heels. I think the Ember Lab animation excellence shines through here especially, making these little creatures so timid and then, so endearing, is all achieved through the sound and animation design that Ember Lab has uniquely brought to the table.
Kena the Spirit Guide
Kena is a Spirit Guide. In our world she would be considered a psychic or medium, someone who can (or claims to) commune with the dead and help them move on from this world or the limbo they may find themselves in, having the cliché “unfinished business”. This is the core of the story as we move through the forest, meeting and helping spirits move on, cleaning up the dead forest as she releases the spirits from their stay. Every character you meet is amicable, well designed and worth helping. And this is actually where a gripe of mine comes in: I think that by the end of my time with Kena, I knew more about the Rot and the spirits we had helped, than I knew about her. There is very little in the way of character growth or even depth for Kena (small hints at some bits of her past aside), and I think if there is another game in this franchise, that is something I would dearly like to see and learn about.
This is where a gripe of mine comes in, I think that by the end of my time with Kena, I knew more about the rot and the spirits we had helped, than I knew about her.
The game is staightforward. Run through an area, explore, discover some secrets, solve a puzzle, find a new Rot, fight to save a spirit. But to be honest, I loved the simplicity. I loved the way I knew what to do. I LOVED that the game gave me a choice in difficulty all the way from, “Look, do you just want to revel in the story and the beauty of our world” to “Do you want to hack and slash like you are playing a much prettier Devil May Cry?”.
So, as you run through an area, there is also no need to explore if you don’t want to. Instead you can beat the boss, collect an upgrade, and move on. It just works. It takes me back to the days where I didn’t have to read 5 guides and watch 3 hours of YouTube to know if I was building the right build, or if I needed to min/max. I just played like my heart told me to, and it was a simple, painless, joyful.
Hacking and Slashing done simply
An area where I felt a little let down was the combat. While it looks and feels good, once you have it mastered, there isn’t much that can stop you. In combat, you have the usual light and heavy attacks, and a bit later on your staff can be used as a bow to add some range to your skills, but there is no real depth to it past that. The game remains as I have described it: simple. Even on the most difficult setting, I could take a boss or enemy is down in less than a few minutes and that that probably tells you all you need to know. The game lasts roughly 10 hours, and if there was a little bit more meat to the combat, I think it could have added more challenge for those looking to spend more time in the beautiful world Ember Lab has crafted. The boss fights are not lacking though, with incredible design and thrilling music, they were some of my favourite fights this year, even if not the most challenging.
In combat, you have the usual light and heavy attacks, and a bit later on your staff can be used as a bow to add some range to your skills, but there is no depth to it.
Also, the little Rot come somewhat to the rescue here, putting themselves in harm’s way to help Kena by holding a boss in place so that you can get to their weak points. While adding another layer to the gameplay, it does make the already lacking combat, even easier. A little later in the game, you will need to make choices around your use of the Rot and whether to use them to get some good damage in or to heal you up, but if it doesn’t work the first time, a quick change in strategy will have you sorted.
Kena has a bit of everything
Now, as I approach the end of my review, you may notice that I seemed to spend most of the time saying the game is rather simple, and that the combat is lacking. So, as you gander down at my score you may rightfully wonder why rated it so highly? Well, because Kena: Bridge of Spirits is best looked in as a package deal. Everything told, there is a beautiful world, engaging platforming, light puzzle-solving, general combat that while easy remains satisfying and feels good… then you add in all the collectables, the mini-boss fights, and, of course, the loveable characters. And when you combine everything like that plus the specific time in my life that I got to play it – it was a simple, beautiful escape from reality.