Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the kind of gorgeous that belongs in a movie theater. Not because other games aren’t beautiful, but because it distinctly looks like it was made by an animated film studio. No surprise, because that’s exactly what Ember Lab was before deciding to make its first game. My first instinct for Kena though, was worry. A small team working on its first game—and one that looks so good—could very well have chased ambitions beyond its skill set. After spending an hour and a half with Kena, I’ve stuffed my concerns up on the shelf.
Kena’s third-person action combat, small environmental puzzles, and light platforming are focused, concise fun. It’s a genuinely enjoyable game that just so happens to have been made by a team with animation experience.
Ember Lab’s demonstrated love for Majora’s Mask may lead you to believe that Kena plans to tread on Zelda’s territory. This isn’t a Zelda-like game, though, nor do I think it was attempting to be, but it is definitely made by people who love them. Past that caveat, you’ll not hear another “Zelda” out of me, because I think Kena deserves better than to live in that shadow.
So here’s a proper introductrion to Kena: She’s a spirit guide, owner of one magical wooden staff, friend to the tiny Rot spirit followers, and giver of tough love to angry spirits who need to stop making a mess. Her staff is for whacking enemies with and, as I unlocked near the end of my session, for using as a magical bow, too. The Rot spirits are furry black blobs with adorable eyes that follow Kena around and assist her with environmental obstacles (and combat) as her posse grows. The angry spirits are the boss fights, huge action encounters that are unlocked by collecting relics that were important to them in life.
Spirits each have their own distinct areas that Kena ventures out to—not open world, mind—complete with fast travel points along the way. While searching for the first relic belonging to a spirit named Taro, I explored a forested section of the world. With my destination on a hill high above me, the journey up involved activities largely distinct from one another.
An area of rocky cliffs meant I was about to do a bit of jumping across outcroppings and hopping up handholds. A large stone door surrounded by crystals that resonated with Kena’s blue, spherical spirit shield was clearly a puzzling task. Clearings with thorned, corrupted plants signaled that I was walking into a fight.
It’s possible that Kena will do more mixing of elements later on, but in the early part of the game I played, Kena always made it clear what I needed to be thinking about.
Despite the decent collection of other activities, Kena’s combat is definitely the central focus. Fights are mostly self-contained, often triggered by entering the area they occur in and ending only when you’ve cleared the corruption with Kena’s spirit abilities. Even with the slight latency introduced by the Parsec demo session I played through, Kena’s combat felt quick and comfortable between basic strikes, dodges, and special abilities.
Kena has a light and a heavy attack with her staff, both of which fill up her “courage” meter when she strikes an enemy. Kena’s courage (the courage of her little Rot companions, actually) can be thought of as her special attack meter, and it is, but it also controls most other things in fights as well. Courage is spent on activating healing flowers in the environment—no health potions here. It’s also used to destroy enemy spawners and to bind enemies in place for a brief period of time.
Combat is rarely a one on one affair for that reason. Smaller enemies—whether they’re little tree grunts with large axes or ones with shields to bash me with or long halberds—continue arriving until you dispatch a spawner or some other obstacle by using one of your courage-powered Rot abilities.
Courage is also what powers Kena’s larger unlockable abilities, the ones performed by her gaggle of Rot companions. Early on I was able to unlock a Rot Hammer ability, which allowed me to spend courage (with an extra button press) while using my standard heavy attack to turn it into a more powerful hit that also strikes enemies a short distance away. The more Rot you’ve collected, the more courage Kena can hold at any one time, meaning she’ll be able to use more (or larger) special abilities in a row.
My Rot Hammer and other abilities are particularly useful for those mini boss fights. I took on two in an hour and a half. The first was the Kappa, which popped up from different pools in its underground lake home to toss smaller enemies at me. Taking out the tiny shield wilders helped me build up courage while I dodged the Kappa’s other attacks. I was able to spend one of my two Rot actions to bind the Kappa in place and the second one for my Rot Hammer to take out a good portion of its long health bar.
My second fight was against the Wood Knight, a large creature with a club that required me to dodge its huge swings and shoot at weak points on its back with my new bow. Both felt familiar, but so did Kena’s combat on the whole. I’ve played action games with combat and bosses like these, and I genuinely appreciate that Kena tackled both well instead of overextending itself.
Most of the spirit relics you’ll collect involve these types of mini boss encounters, Ember Lab explained, though some are connected to traversal and puzzle activities. After collecting all three relics I’d have been up against Taro himself, which appears to be an even larger fight that I didn’t get to see.
The Rot spirits provide assistance outside of combat as well. They can do things like pick up large objects in the environment and move them to solve puzzles. They held up the rope of a broken bridge for me to cross at one point. Sometimes they just pop up on bits of the environment around me, doing a cute little jiggle and making their presence known.
Oh, and you can collect hats for them.
I put frog hats on most of mine. And some of them are just slightly larger than the others, which somehow makes them even cuter. They’re a made-for-merchandising level of adorable that reminded me of Ember Lab’s origins.
Playing it safe
Ember Lab clearly knows its strengths. Kena is a beautiful game, with detailed environments and adorably plump character designs that I’d expect to see in a feature length animated film. Ember Lab has leaned into those skills with some lovely cutscenes, the beautiful forest I got to explore, and the adorable Rot spirits.
What’s most impressive about Kena: Bridge of Spirits is that Ember Lab’s small team of about 15 members doesn’t seem to have tried to do too much—something games from far larger developers do all the time. Knowing the studio’s history, and seeing just how beautiful Kena’s reveal trailer was, I was worried that Ember Lab would build a beautiful world that couldn’t quite hack it as a game.
From what I’ve played so far though, Kena honestly seems to be perfectly right-sized. It’s not aspiring to a 50-hour play time or an open world. The combat and puzzles aren’t treading any particularly new ground, but they’re confidently walking a path I already know I enjoy.
Ember Lab seems to have known exactly what it wanted Kena to be, and exactly what I wanted it to be as well: a compact, confident action adventure in a world that belongs on a theater screen.