Kena: Bridge of Spirits caught everyone's eye last year when it was unveiled at PlayStation Future of Gaming event alongside the PS5. After missing out on its initial 2020 launch window, developer Ember Lab confirmed that the game was set to release on Sept. 21, 2021. Ahead of its launch, I got to take part in a hands-on preview of the game for an hour, getting to explore the world and seeing what it has to offer players this summer.
As I set out on my adventure, it's clear that Kena draws inspiration from beloved franchises like God of War and Pikmin. The God of War comparison may seem strange given Kena's charming animated look, but it's apt once you get a feel for the gameplay. I'm tasked with helping a pair of siblings defeat a corruption that's plaguing the land and harming the spirit of their brother Taro. Kena has access to light and heavy attacks with her staff, but she can also dodge out of the way if need be. Even playing remotely over a streaming service, the controls felt responsive and satisfying to use. I never felt like I was unfairly hit by an enemy — though they can pack quite a punch.
What helps with combat are the little creatures by your side called Rot. Despite the unfortunate name, they're incredibly useful, much like the titular creatures in Pikmin, helping you solve puzzles and battle enemies. They're an integral part of Kena: Bridge of Spirits, allowing you to cleanse corruption and progress, and you can even buy little hats for them to wear throughout the journey.
Much of your progression is tied to an upgrade tree that allows you to unlock various skills, one of which is the Rot Hammer. As you can expect from its name, you can command your Rot to bash enemies into the ground. By upgrading your abilities, you'll be able to take on bigger and tougher foes. Time your Pulse ability just right and you'll not only be able to shield yourself but you'll parry the incoming attack as well. Near the end of the demo, I even unlocked a bow to use against the Wood Knight, which has specific weak points across its body.
I played the demo on medium difficulty, but there are multiple options available. I didn't find medium terribly hard, but the boss fights took me two or three tries before finding my groove. Either way, it feels like Ember Lab has struck the right balance with its gameplay, crafting a challenge that's fun and rewarding without feeling unfair. The wooden creatures that come to attack you generally don't take much to destroy, but Ember Lab mixes it up with different enemy types that keep you on your toes. Sometimes this means there are enemies climbing through the trees throwing bombs at you, while other times there are enemies with large shields that require you to time you dodges right and create an opening.
While others have compared it a bit to Metroidvanias, I didn't get that feeling, but that may be because I only had an hour with the game. Exploration is definitely rewarding, it just feels too linear from what I played to make that comparison just yet.
It doesn't feel right to discuss Kena: Bridge of Spirits without talking about its visuals. Yes, it looks like an animated movie, and yes, I realize those comparisons are growing old, but it just does. The world is gorgeous as Kena moves throughout it. The juxtaposition of a lively, vibrant forest next to a rotten cesspool really showcases some incredible design choices.
And when it comes to its story, it reminded me a bit of Ori and the Blind Forest. There's that underlying focus on nature and spirituality that flows through it, and I have a feeling it will get just as emotional at some point.
I don't know whether Kena will continue to hold my interest for its 10 or so hour playthrough time, but I have high hopes from what I've seen. If Ember Lab can deliver on even a fraction of what I played, I'll be happy. Weaving new and old mechanics together can be a tricky business, and Ember Lab does it with deft. Indie games like this don't release too often, but when they do they're certainly memorable.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits launches on Sept. 21, 2021, for PS4, PS5, and PC. Those who purchase the game on PS4 will get a free upgrade to the PS5 version once they hop over to current-gen consoles, provided they get lucky with PS5 restocks.
Taking inspiration from beloved franchises
Kena: Bridge of Spirits stars a young girl who uses her magical abilities to help the deceased pass on to the spirit world. Her journey will be full of danger, but she'll have friends by her side to help her get through it.
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Jennifer Locke has been playing video games nearly her entire life. You can find her posting pictures of her dog and obsessing over PlayStation and Xbox, Star Wars, and other geeky things.