Kena: Bridge of Spirits was positioned by Sony as a key game coming to PlayStation 5. While it's great that the company puts some indie titles on the same level as triple-A experiences, it can sometimes lead to inflated expectations. Developer Ember Lab's debut game has always looked fantastic in the lead up to launch, but does its gameplay match the beautiful, whimsical art style?
The good news is that, on the whole, it does. With the studio's background in animation for TV and movies, it was almost expected that this would look great, and it does have lovely, colourful visuals with lots of personality. As alluded, though, the actual game underneath the lush environments and expressive characters is solid good fun.
You play as Kena, a young spirit guide on a quest to visit the mountain shrine. On the way, she discovers the Rot, a species of magical creatures that offer her a helping hand in her journey. We won't be going over any spoilers, save to say that the story doesn't really stray from what you'd expect; able to help lost spirits find peace, it hits an optimistic yet bittersweet tone, akin to any number of animated films you've seen in the last decade.
While the narrative hasn't surprised us, what has is how much the game takes us back to those PS2-era action platformers, in a good way. Think Jak & Daxter, Sly Cooper, or even Tak and the Power of Juju — it's in that wheelhouse. This is a mostly linear action adventure absolutely stuffed with collectibles, light platforming, and combat arenas, all stitched together in a large map. The feeling of moving through the world — hunting for hidden areas, gathering the Rot, and unlocking more paths with new abilities — puts us in mind of those old-school action platformers. It has a straightforward structure, but it's a compelling one that'll have you exploring every inch of the game for secrets.
The early influences are definitely there, but that's not to say Kena hasn't also borrowed from more modern titles, too. Platforming, especially when you're scaling cliffs and shimmying across ledges, is very Uncharted, while combat has your attacks on R1 and R2, putting it in line with any action game released in the last five years. It pulls from all kinds of places, but it gets away with it because everything feels good.
The combat and puzzles are where the game comes into its own. The Rot isn't just a cute troupe of followers, they're useful in all kinds of ways. Outside of fights, Kena can command them to lift and move heavy objects, help find more Rot creatures, and rid the world of a blight known only as corruption. None of the puzzles are particularly taxing, but it's fun interacting with the Rot, whether for objectives or just to relax. Pushing right on the D-pad sits Kena down with her diminutive buddies, and you can play some adorable animations, just because.
When faced with enemies, you have light and heavy attacks in addition to a block and dodge roll, but the Rot comes into play here as well. Dealing and taking damage will build courage in the little things, and when ready, they can perform an action, such as finding flowers to replenish your health, attacking enemies themselves, or powering up some of your own moves. It adds a small layer of strategy to what is otherwise pretty standard, and surprisingly challenging, combat. Sometimes the fact you can't heal whenever you like can feel frustrating, but it's a relatively balanced system most of the time.
As you play, finding more of the Rot to level up and using Karma to upgrade your abilities, Kena will gradually learn more techniques, used both in fights and in exploration. For example, the bow lets you attack from a distance, but it also allows you to sling across the environment via blue flowers, grapple hook style. There's a good sense of progression, and it all moves at a fair clip, keeping you engaged for the 10 or so hours it takes to finish. There is a bit of backtracking if you want to see and do everything, which can be dull when there are no enemies present to keep you on your toes. However, warp stones at key points let you fast travel around, which helps to keep things moving.
Again, the game's presentation is generally very good, but we did spot one or two hiccups. Occasionally, Kena's movement can feel somewhat stilted, and some of the character designs are a bit lacking. Having said that, the level of polish is impressive for a team's debut effort, and we haven't encountered any serious bugs at all. Meanwhile, load times are swift, and the DualSense's features add some nice tactile feedback to the action, which is always appreciated. Playing in the default performance mode, it runs smoothly at 60 frames-per-second, although we did notice some hitches when the game autosaves.
Despite borrowing from all manner of modern hits, Kena: Bridge of Spirits just about stands on its own. The wonderful visuals and music leave a strong impression, while the gameplay is simple but enjoyable. If its story went beyond the expected, and one or two small issues were scrubbed away, this would be a real winner. As it is, this is a solid action platformer with lots of personality, and a strong debut from Ember Lab.