I do not recall when I first became aware of Kena Bridge of Spirits. According to this announcement trailer, it must have been sometime in 2020. I was immediately hooked, but I did not jump in right away when it launched in 2021. I do not even remember why. It was a tough year for me personally, so maybe that was one of the reasons. Whatever it was, I am rarely on time with game releases, so why would Kena Bridge of Spirits be any different?
It is a different game, though (horrible segue *cough*), and one that I think stands out among all the others I have played in the past decade. Kena Bridge of Spirits is a PlayStation and PC exclusive, and it is the first title I played after building a gaming PC after just one year of abstinence. I haven’t heard much of this game after its release. Still, it apparently did well enough for Ember Lab to warrant a free anniversary upgrade at the end of September 2022.
Close combat games aren’t usually my jam. That is not because I do not like them. It has more to do with my inability to master the combat for an enjoyable experience. I must often resort to the Easy difficulty to complete challenging sections or bosses, and in the majority of times, the Easy mode is so accessible that it is borderline boring. Despite that, I went into the game with an open mind, and I am glad I did. I still had trouble with some of the bosses, but for the most part, I fought my way through the game on the normal difficulty. Let me tell you about it.
As always, I begin by discussing the game’s technology.
The Nerdy Bits
The technical underpinnings of Kena Bridge of Spirits are based on Epic’s Unreal Engine 4. This is usually an indicator of a flashy visual presentation, and Kena does not disappoint. Not only do things look nice, but Ember Lab also utilizes a unique visual style reminiscent of animated movies like Shrek, Toy Story, and others. This gives the game a distinct look that stands out from the rest of the Unreal crowd. Everything looks kid-friendly. However, do not let the visuals fool you. Combat is absolutely not kid-friendly and can make your hair turn gray a lot faster (if there is still any left). More on that later.
Kena Bridge of Spirit’s art direction is highly stylized and could be described as “comic-like”. Other than the Borderlands franchise, it achieves that without the cell-shading look. Characters or objects are devoid of any black outlines. As much as I adore comic book art, the visual style employed works better here. It is all about the proportions, reduced texture surface details, and a “lighthearted” color palette (for lack of a better term). It is essentially an interactive animated Pixar movie. As such, it pairs well with the cartoony animations and the game’s occasional cute moments.
The utilization of light plays a significant role in this title, and the game’s early minutes reflect that.
Of course, you will not only find yourself in dark environments, as shown in these screenshots. But emphasizing light usage early on indicates its importance in the visual presentation and gameplay.
Despite the eye candy, Kena runs well overall. There is a caveat, however, but let me start with something truly incredible: the loading times. It is as if there aren’t any. Starting the game only takes a couple of seconds, mainly to show the Ember Lab logo. After that, you will not be harassed by the “Press any button” nonsense. Instead, you can immediately access the main menu, and from there, loading a saved state only briefly shows a splash screen. The whole from-zero-to-hero process takes less than 10 seconds, and you are back playing the game. I wish more titles followed down this path.
If Kena were a Ubisoft production, you might have just made it past the second animated logo at this point. An Assassin’s Creed game would be like, “Nah, dude. You are not done yet watching more self-promotion.”
Hardware-wise, I run my games off a Samsung 970 Evo NVME SSD connected via PCI-E 3.0. It is a fast storage device, yet not the fastest one out there anymore. My Linux installation on a SATA SSD shows a similar performance. Kudos Ember Lab.
Talking about the graphics performance is more nuanced than loading speeds. Let me start with my settings and the hardware the game is running on.
As you can see, I dropped a few settings to High, like Shadows. This brought a significant gain in FPS, and the next item on the list would be Post Processing Quality. Apart from very few isolated incidents, like in the following scene, leaving the Setting on Ultra worked well.
Here, the game was literally unplayable at 18 fps. Dropping the Post Processing down one notch yielded a fluid frame rate. There is a far worse enemy to performance hidden in Unreal Engine, one for which you will not find a toggle, and I will get to that soon.
My mid-range RTX 3060 painted between 50 and 60 frames per second at 1440p. I experienced occasional dips into the mid-40ies, but for the most part, it hovered around 50 to 60. Modern image reconstruction techniques like DLSS or FSR 2.0 sadly do not exist to help out weaker hardware. Despite that, the game performs well enough, and several options remain to fine-tune the performance further if needed. In my case, the variable refresh rate of my monitor smoothed out these types of performance drops.
Being an Unreal title, though, I have to address the stutter in the room. It is the shader compilation elephant and the massive frame time spikes resulting from it. The worst of their kind usually happened in a limited set of situations, mainly when opening a particular type of chest. A special effect is displayed when you do that, and this causes severe stuttering, presumably due to on-demand shader compilation. You would think that once you have triggered those effects a couple of times, you’d be rid of these nasty buggers. Not really. At one point, I was in the midst of a tricky combat situation atop a tree house with little room to navigate before plunging to death.
Spread across several other trees and platforms, some enemies threw explosive goo at me, and others tried to get into a fistfight. I experienced several intense frame rate drops due to such visual effects, which turned the combat into a bit of a lucky guessing game.
In another moment, I exploded a bomb on an enemy next to Kena, and the game froze. The sound was still working fine, but everything else was dead. I had to log out from my Windows account to do anything. Nothing else helped.
This was the only crash and the worst instance of them all. Besides that, running around environments quickly is also littered with tiny stutters. This was most apparent during the game’s final hours when I searched for all the collectibles and sprinted across the maps. You can also see this issue in Digital Foundry’s video on the game. Typically, this is less of a concern during regular gameplay when casually exploring new areas. Combat sequences are also 99% spared from this unwanted Unreal “feature”.
Unrelated to Unreal yet still a “feature”, I noticed that the built-in benchmark does not work. The only action it performed was setting all graphics options to Ultra. I wonder how this obvious bug made it past QC.
Kena’s art style is also perfectly accentuated by the audio presentation. Whether we are talking about ambient sounds, exploration, combat music, or sound effects, the game bridges the gap between the delightful and happy visual presentation and the demanding combat sequences. The battle music is darker but not dreadful. It delivers a sound of urgency and danger, yet it stays within the overall playful theme. The game is a joy to look at and a joy to listen to. Kena’s voice actress does an excellent job of portraying a young woman and sounding cute when things need to be cute. There is not a lot of spoken dialog, but all of it is of high quality.
The only weak part I could make out were the sounds when hitting an enemy. Kena is fighting with a wooden stick, and you are mainly hitting wooden enemies. It’s Kena versus various incarnations of Groot. There is only so much you can do with that, and the sound effect is appropriate, yet it could do with a little bit more oomph, just to make it more impactful.
Before you start playing, ensure that your hair is strong and healthy. Maybe also have some dye ready as you might need it to hide the gray spots after approaching the boss battles.
Let me rewind and start explaining what kind of game Kena Bridge of Spirits actually is.
Ember Lab created a Tomb Raider-3D-Platformer-Souls-like. With Toy Story graphics.
Kena’s gameplay is an amalgamation of different genres to form an exciting adventure. The different mechanics have been perfectly balanced to give players enough respite after a tough battle and to feed their curiosity by investigating the area they are in.
(I swear this is not taken off some marketing slides.)
Kena is not an Open World atrocity like Ubisoft’s AAA titles. The game’s world is similarly constructed to Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider franchise. It consists of several larger areas connected by a village that serves as a hub. From there, the story branches into three different sections, each telling its own tale within the bounds of the main narrative. The first time you encounter such a “quest”, it will seem like an optional side mission. But it is not. Kena is a linear adventure, and your only choice as a player is how much time you want to spend looking in every nook and cranny to find the collectibles.
Like in Tomb Raider, a comparison I will draw quite often, the map overview displays how many collectibles you can discover in a particular part of the map. It gives the number and the type, and the game even highlights which kinds you have completed. Neat. As a result, you do not waste time not knowing if you have everything or if something is still playing hide and seek. It solely depends on your desire for completion and whether you want to catch ‘em all. I would say that about half should do the trick to get the most out of the game and unlock all of Kena’s skills.
This means you can ignore some elements completely, like Cursed Chests or Rot hats. The first is a particular type of chest that presents you with a challenge. Usually, you must defeat several enemies in a given time. Occasionally, there is no time limit and only enemies, but with a little twist to actually make it a challenge. It is a short and fun element, and I never got annoyed completing them. You will find just the right amount to entertain you from time to time.
Your reward can be “crystals”, the game’s sorta currency or a Rot hat. The only purpose of the hats is to make the adventure even cuter. It is a form of customization, if you will.
Finding Rot not only elevates the cuteness factor to before unseen heights. The little fur balls provide Kena with enhanced skills she desperately requires in boss battles. The more you find, the more skills you can unlock, which makes it worth your while scouring the levels more thoroughly. I cannot recommend it enough to invest the time and unravel all of Kena’s potential. When it is time to step up to a boss to put it in its place, you will be happy to know you have a more powerful version of every type of attack at your disposal.
Boss fights are the absolute highlight of the game. Exchange the playful look of the visuals for something dark and gritty, and you got yourself a Dark Souls battle. General combat is already challenging, but the stronger Kena gets, the more manageable it becomes – do not mistake it for easy, though. Some skirmishes will still keep you on your toes. The bosses, on the other hand, appear to get even more demanding over time. Each and everyone has their own set of moves and abilities. The game requires you to study your opponent’s arsenal and react to it. I can recall only a single fight where I applied the pressure, not the other way around. In a lucky coincidence, I discovered a combo that rendered sword-stick ninja here harmless.
While he looked badass, Kena had the power of 100 adorable Rot at her side. Boss battles are brutal, even at the game’s normal difficulty. Finding all meditation spots in the game world is literally vital to max out Kena’s health (pun intended). Healing opportunities in a fight are extremely limited. There are no health potions to craft or buy or magic healing spells fueled by mana. Larger arenas contain some sort of plant that Kena can tap into using a Rot action to restore her life. This is a finite resource, though, of which you find at max three in a fight. Without an endless supply of Red Bull at your disposal, Kena’s best chance of survival is for you to learn her adversary’s attack patterns and evade or counter them. One brief moment of inattention and you might be on the receiving end of a combo that will reduce Kena’s life to almost zero. In total, I changed the difficulty to Easy four times. Virtually all of those instances have been during the final hours, where the intensity picks up considerably. Note, though, that the game is really, really easy on the lowest difficulty setting – too easy for my liking, which left a bit of a sour aftertaste while the credits rolled.
With the combat section behind us, there is one more gameplay mechanic to discuss: 3D platforming and exploration. This is the part where I return to the notion that light plays an important role. Throughout the game, you will find several puzzles that revolve around Kena’s pulse or energy shot ability to energize and illuminate magic rocks to unlock doors.
The puzzles are not particularly complicated, and subtle hints point you to the solution. Luckily, the game does not spam you with such riddles. Their utilization is pretty clever, though, and Kena Bridge of Spirits manages to throw something new into the mix once in a while. I never felt like I was getting into a rut, repeating the same motions over and over again. Ember Lab distributed these moments thoughtfully across the map and spiced things up with different mechanics as Kena’s arsenal of moves increased.
As you progress through the campaign, you will receive a skill that allows Kena to create temporary pathways with floating rock formations. Once Kena gets to throw these magic bombs to explode debris into place, the 3D platforming aspect shifts into another gear.
(Now have to think about Fast & Furious and the constant shifting. You gotta love those movies for what they are 😁)
Until you reach this point, Kena is like a Lara Croft without the climbing axe. You’ll even find the familiar white markings on walls that you can clamber.
After that, even traversal becomes a puzzle. As such, the aspect of exploration evolves into more than just walking around and looking behind every bush. Things get pretty wild towards the end. I am not a platformer guy, but I absolutely liked it.
Unfortunately, I did not manage to capture a good screenshot.
Although the boss fights are the memorable gameplay element, you cannot discount the exploration and puzzling aspect. As I wrote in my marketing blurp to the gameplay section, the amount of general combat, boss battles, and exploration is well balanced. For the curious types among you, there is a lot of time to spend scouring the levels for every collectible. Once in a while, you will find a small group of random enemies to dispatch along the way, so it does not become too dull. And once you progress to the next big part of the level, you will usually have to contend with a big bad boy standing in your way, giving your Kena a hard time.
Story and Characters
Kena Bridge of Spirit’s story is a fitting backdrop for a very entertaining adventure. By itself, it is nothing extraordinary, more of a generic family-friendly fantasy tale. But that is okay. It works nicely, and the game focuses on the gameplay loop instead of presenting you with an awe-inspiring narrative.
For example, the game never explains anything about its world that is not directly relevant to the story. You won’t find collectibles that provide any insight into this place and the people that lived there. There is no elaborate environmental storytelling.
The central premise of Kena Bridge of Spirits is a corruption that has covered the land, and Kena’s journey takes her to a supposedly powerful mountain shrine. There she hopes to find answers. Kena is a so-called Spirit guide who helps the spiritual remains of people to let go of whatever binds them to the earth so they can move on and rest in peace. A non-violent Witcher lifting curses of wraiths and other monsters, if you will. Coincidently, Kena continues the tradition of her father, who was also a Spirit Guide. Do you see the similarities to Lara Croft?
During her journey, Kena will meet a handful of spirits she has to help before continuing her quest to the mountain shrine. Through these “side missions,” you will learn a little about the world and a few of its inhabitants. When you beat the game, all pieces of the small puzzle are connected and explained. The most important one is who the Rot are. Kena herself does not know, but she also does not ask any questions. She immediately accepts them as her companions. How’s that for tolerance and inclusion?
The more Rot you find during your travels, the more of these tiny, black, furry, bulgy-eyed stuffed animal-like creatures will follow Kena around wherever she goes. If Kena stops, the Rot surround her, looking up at her. A special command lets Kena sit down and interact with her tiny friends.
When you unlock a hat, you can buy it for crystals at a hat cart and assign it to your Rot, thus making them look even more adorable.
Ember Lab put so many little details into the game to emphasize and visualize the relationship between Kena and the Rot. The Rot will find places to sit and chill when Kena discovers a house or a shrine. The Rot jump around happy when Kena uses her pulse, mimicking her actions. If you look closely, the Rot will sometimes provide subtle hints about where to discover something. Small touches like this, combined with the perfect sound design, make the game so incredibly delightful.
Famous Last Words
I realize that the gameplay section is pretty long for a 20-hour title, and I am surprised myself. Looking back at the game, it makes sense. Kena Bridge of Spirits is very much gameplay driven. It’s the game’s selling point, and a good one at that. Do not let the adorable visuals fool you into thinking this is only for kids. It is quite the opposite, in fact, and if you are up for a challenge, Kena Bridge of Spirits might surprise you.
One of the design choices I most enjoyed was how new skills for Kena were introduced and how the game strongly encourages you to utilize them over and over again so that they become second nature. In many other titles that give the player skills to play with, I tend to resort only to a minimal set so long as I can get by. I prefer passive skills over active ones because I do not have to remember button combos. Kena Bridge of Spirits circumvents this issue by giving me ample opportunity during relaxed exploration to get a grip on how to use them. Many serve a dual purpose – in combat and the platforming parts of the adventure. It was much easier for me to build muscle memory and use Kena’s complete arsenal (mostly 😉).
Besides the engaging fighting opportunities, you will be delighted with fun exploration and puzzling, and, above all, adorable animations and an incredible amount of attention to detail. For example, when Kena is hurt, her clothes are dirty. As she heals up, she gets magically clean again. During exploration, Kena has a relaxed and friendly look on her face. In combat, she looks fierce and determined.
Besides all the positive elements I already mentioned, there is a glaring issue on the technical side – frame time spikes through shader compilation. The Unreal Engine can be a mighty tool for game development. Still, developers must be aware of some of its drawbacks. Stray on PC suffers from the same, yet smaller, stutters. On the other hand, the Gears of War franchise is an excellent example of how to tame Unreal Engine 4. Kena Bridge of Spirits performs well overall. However, there are a couple of repeatable situations where its polish fades. When viewed as a complete experience, I found it was not detrimental to the overall enjoyment. As a technical person, though, I noticed these stutters and wished they would not exist.
Suppose you are one of the ever-growing audience of Linux gamers. In that case, you might be happy to hear that the game ran without much trouble on Proton GE using the Heroic Launcher to install the Epic Games version. Performance is very similar to Windows, but the micro stutters when traversing the map are more pronounced and have the potential to become annoying the longer you play.
Let me mention one final time how much inspiration Kena draws from Tomb Raider. Replace its gun fights with close combat, and out comes Kena Bridge of Spirits. Of course, it is not that simple, and Kena stands firmly on its own legs. The similarities are undeniable, however.
Closing this review, I often say that I like a game’s audio, soundtrack, or voice acting. And while that is true, Kena Bridge of Spirits delivers a package I have not yet heard in a video game. Yes, I admittedly do not branch off much in my gaming tastes. That does not detract from the fact that this game is an outstanding combination of visuals and matching audio. Well done, Ember Lab!
Kena Bridge of Spirits is clearly a game of the year contender for me.
Thank you for reading.