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Kena: Bridge of Spirits Review: Finding Magic in Video Games

As I grow older, I find myself not finding the magic in video games that I once found. It may be that I don’t have the time to sit down and pick up the controller because I have all of these responsibilities. But I know the feeling of magic. It’s not something you ever forget. Rushing home from school, tossing your book bag on the floor, and flipping open your Gameboy Advanced SP to jump back into Hyrule. Homework waited because Ganon needed defeating. Or Bowser needing tossing. Or the Covenant needed to be beaten. That feeling that you had to explore every nook and cranny of the heroes world to complete this epic heroes journey is a feeling I haven’t felt in some time. That is, until I picked up my controller to play Kena: Bridge of Spirits. I don’t have a book bag full of homework anymore but you can be sure I’m gonna put off other responsibilities to keep playing this game. 

From the first few moments where I was instructed to use my “Pulse” ability, I knew this adventure was going to be special. The room lit up around me with a wonderful sparkle as the music began to play. Kena: Bridge of Spirits follows Kena, a novice Spirit Guide, as she gets side tracked on her way to a sacred place of power. She stumbled upon an abandoned village afflicted with corruption. She has to work through her past as she tries to free the land of the corruption.

The Game

Credit: Ember Lab

Kena plays similar to a lot of action platformers with tight combat sections with puzzles and platforming as you explore the map. The combat itself is not extremely complex but that actually leads to it being a lot more enjoyable. Combat scenarios can be tough at times (I played on the medium setting) and never felt punished like some other modern games tend to do. If I died, I came back with a plan and always came through. It’s nothing that is ground breaking for the genre but there is a lot of diversity in how you fight with weapons like your staff or an eventual bow. Your pals, the Rot, do allow for some power ups or distractions for foes in battle after getting enough charge to make them courageous enough to join you in battle.

There is a leveling system which is straight forward and extremely accessible for most players. I think not over complicating the gameplay is what leads it to actually being a lot of fun. You’re encouraged to go exploring to find items like lost mail, mediation spots, and hats for your Rot pals. Typically when I play games these days, I never go out of my way to collect but Kena made me go off the beaten path. I wanted to see the wonderful world the team designed and search for all of the little nooks and crannies.

Credit: Me, Dan McMahon, taking 1000000 pictures in the in-game Photo Mode.

I played on the PS5 and saw no performance issues in my 5+ hours of gameplay so far. The game runs extremely smooth with movement and combat never seeing a hiccup in my case. The textures and effects in the game are vibrant and beautiful. Even if it’s a cartoon type style to the characters, each is crafted to be very different. The enemy units are an amalgam of evil spirit and elements of the forest itself. Their designs are incredible to look at as you hack away at them. Kena’s costume is similar in simplicity to so many major video game icons with a lot of complexity when you get closer. 

Jason Gallaty and the ensemble group Gamelan Çudamani have composed a wonderful score for the game. It truly carries the mood as you run through the forrest or fight the monsters all around the world. It’s a whimsical score that fits well with the world and story. The deluxe edition comes with a separate app on the PlayStation to listen which is a nice bonus.  The sound design of the game itself is fantastic as well from climbing to fighting, everything is really well done. 

The Rot

Credit: Dan McMahon taking pictures of his new family to show everyone who will look.

Listen, I am a big softy. I love adorable little chunky monsters a lot and the Rot are absolutely what I need more of in life. They’re a crucial part of the game as they are essentially Kena’s gang. With each new puzzle, the developers find fun and creative uses for them as they lift giant columns, crystals, and even clear the corruption itself. They are used during combat with power ups and they’re used outside of combat a ton as well. With a lot of games, cute side kick type characters take a back seat to just tossing out quips but it’s so clear just how important the Rot were in development and to the team (and me personally).

As you collect more of them, they all follow you as you traverse the world. But they are never an afterthought in this traversing because as you move around the world, they show up all over the place. They pop up sitting on rocks or standing in the doorways of chicken coops. They are a part of the world itself at all points of the game which I was not expecting. Every time I would do something, they would show up in places I wasn’t expecting. Like the first time I did a climbing section, they were sitting on the ledge with big smiles on their faces as if they were helping me.

The game includes an incredible Photo mode. I know every game has one now but this one allows you to click a button for “Cheese!” where everyone will pose including the Rot. My entire PS5 hard drive may or may not filled with pictures of my new best friends, the Rot.

Is Is Worth Picking Up?

With this being Ember Lab’s first game, I was not ready to be as fully sucked into the world as I was and currently still am. It’s not a game that is making huge sweeping changes to the genre or gameplay but it’s using familiar elements with some new ones to bring the magic back to gaming. At the $40 USD price point, it’s worth every penny.

I truly hope Kena finds its way into the hands of young gamers because it’s a game that overflowing with charm and fun. My hope is that Kena and the Rot will be the characters that bring a new generation of gamers that magic that I felt growing up as I spent hours with Link, Mario, and Master Chief in my youth. Just remember that you can play a little bit after school, homework can wait when there is a world to be saved.