Kena is a game I have had my eye on ever since its stunning debut. I was incredibly excited for this game as I think its art style is amazing, however, given that it was Ember Lab’s first game I had some mild doubts. I am happy to report that those doubts were misplaced.
I will not spoil much here, as I believe this is a title best experienced yourself, however, what I can say is Kena’s father was a spirit guide. He helped trapped spirits move on, with Kena eventually inheriting his staff and is on a quest to purify the land from corruption. Along the way, she meets other characters, all of which are well-written and loveable and fit their role perfectly.
Straight off the bat, it becomes incredibly apparent that Kena: Bridge Of Spirits has a fantastic art style and is gorgeous to look at. The models are fantastic and have great art direction. Houses, trees, and other environmental details are completely spot on. Props are placed perfectly, and while clearly a fantasy world, it feels very real. This is what I meant when I criticized Deathloop, which has a much more realistic style, yet failed to translate that into a living, breathing, world.
The Rot, despite their name, are absolutely adorable; they are very well animated and utterly charming. They are also extremely memorable. When you swim, some swim face down and some swim face up. As you move around the environment, they can be seen hanging from trees, hiding in pots, and so on. They are beyond cute, visually impressive, and really add to the overall charm. They make exploring the world that much more fun.
I honestly spent so much time just taking in the environment and walking around. This world is stunning. While graphics tend to be a product of the technology of its time, some games transcend this and can become literal works of art, at least visually. In my opinion, Kena is one of these games. I have not been this impressed by a game world in a very long time. I enjoyed just traveling around the world as much as I enjoyed actually playing the game.
Despite all that, there are a few issues with the game’s visuals. SSR reflections take away from some of the scenes that are full of water, and it would have been nice to see raytraced reflections here. Also, for some reason, there are cutscenes that are pre-rendered with clear macroblocking, while the ones that are not suffer from the same issue as the pre-rendered ones – they animate at 24 FPS. Quite jarring. There’s also no inverse kinematics, which means there’s clipping and floating above certain objects going on and brings down the package slightly as they break immersion. The game is also overly sharpened. There is a tool you can use to fix this, but this is not a casual thing your average user would know to use. Draw distance could also be better, as there is a lot of pop-in which detracts from the otherwise stunning visual package.
I can not praise Ember Labs enough for such strong visuals. This may be a somewhat pricey indie title, but there is nothing quite like it in my opinion. Kena is, by far, the best indie game I have ever played in a very long time, maybe ever.
This game plays it very safe, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ember Lab clearly decided not to be over-ambitious with their first game and it pays off. This feels like a game from the Gamecube era, and I mean that in a good way.
The story is quite linear, but it does have that right amount of openness with paths containing hidden items if you want to explore the world, which you will. Technically, it’s an open world but it’s not the standard template every open-world game has used for over a decade. As I’ve said, it feels very much like a real world; a world you can just explore.
Combat is pretty basic, comprising of light and heavy attacks and a parry. The parry window is tiny, however. I’d liken it to MGR in terms of timing. You have a skill tree and can obtain moves which help keep the combat fresh, although they do have a charge meter. You can also use the Rot in battle to stun enemies and a few other things. So, while combat is straightforward, it still has a level of complexity to it. Even on medium difficulty, the game is quite a challenge; this is not a game where you can just spam attacks, you must think about your actions. You also have a bow and arrow, which feels great to use and has an unlockable slow-mo ability which helps with combat and traveling. Bosses are also well-designed and a nice change from the usual enemies you face.
Outside of combat, traversing the world feels fantastic. Movement feels great, jumping feels great, and so does climbing. You won’t have any issues with the camera or jumping where you didn’t intend; again, everything just feels great. As mentioned before, the game is linear but there are hidden items with just the right amount of exploration available which can be rewarding. Your bow and arrow has moments where you can use it to warp to another spot, unlock bridges, and so on. Every tool at your disposal feels grounded. Like I mentioned previously, this game isn’t about complex gameplay or trying loads of crazy ideas; it goes back to the old days where the story laid a good foundation and the gameplay was executed as solidly as possible. The game is just straight-up fun. It doesn’t try to wow you or overwhelm you, it’s just fun, and I love it for that.
The music in the game is fantastic and really helps bring you into the world. Everything is well-mixed and amplifies what is on screen. Boss themes feel aggressive, yet epic. The instruments have good separation and this is just an all-around stellar soundtrack. The sounds for your attacks, the environment, and so on, are also very solid.
The game is a bit more demanding than it should be, with some areas dropping in performance quite a bit, but with how good it looks and how small the team is, I’m happy with the performance overall. Running on an 8700K and RTX 3080, it didn’t drop below 80 FPS at 1440p on Ultra (with it leaving some GPU usage unused for some reason). At 4K, you will not get a solid 60 FPS experience with a 3080 on Ultra setting; you’d have to dial back some of the graphics if you want to keep that framerate. There’s also some stutter that occurs, which is also present on the PS5 but to a much lesser extent than in PC. This is on a 3500MBps NVME SSD, so I assume this is typical asset streaming stutter.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a stellar title, its gameplay is basic but solid and incredibly fun, the music’s fantastic, the art is phenomenal, and the cutscenes are well-crafted. Kena herself is a solid protagonist, the other characters are fantastic, and the world is memorable. Ember Labs have absolutely knocked this out of the park on their first run, and while there are some rough edges, they are very minor things that I imagine they will resolve in future titles. Ember Labs have not just released one of the best indie games this year – it is one of the best indies ever made hands down, and without a doubt, bodes well for their future releases.