Kena & The Bridge of Spirits is just a pretty face

Kena & The Bridge of Spirits is just a pretty face

Hello, I’m Benjamin Wagner, this is my blog and today I wish I was as beautiful as Kena. Kena and the Bridge of Spirits, much like timeless beauty Hitomi Tanaka, is one hell of a looker. The importance of graphics in video games cannot be understated. Graphical prowess has always been a sign of progress and being at the forefront of the industry. Indie games have always been used to experiment with different gameplay ideas and usually don’t have the graphical prowess to compete with the big boys. But it seems that I might still be stuck in the past here as, if out of nowhere, Kena and the Bridge of Spirits has sneaked up on me. This game, from the moment it was announced, looked stunning. It is cliche to say a video game looks like an interactive animated movie but we are now in an age where this cliche has come true; first with Ratchet and Clank and now with Kena. My surprise was multiplied when it was revealed that the developer, Ember Labs, had not developed a game as a studio before and that they had been this visually ambitious with their first title. I knew that I would certainly pick it up one day whilst knowing precious little about what the game intended in terms of story or gameplay. Sometimes a pretty face is enough to sneak its way into your heart. Are beautiful graphics enough for Kena to move into the Indie game hall of fame or is it as forgettable as mid-2000’s beauty Bianca Gascoigne? Find out as I attempt to review Kena and the Bridge of Spirits.

Synopsis

Kena is a spirit guide; a person who communes with spirits who are unable to move on to the spectral realm and who endeavours to understand what holds them back to help them let go. She travels to an abandoned village far from the civilised world in pursuit of the sacred Mountain Shrine (real generic name there guys…).

Whilst making her way to the village, she encounters a powerful vengeful soul who attempts to prevent her from reaching her destination. Kena attempts to talk the spirit down but he flees and forces Kena to fight some of the monsters he seems to be in control of. As she approaches the village, the corruption and devastation that has been afflicted on this place becomes clearer; transitioning from an idyllic Disney forest to a sad, abandoned shell of its former majesty. On her journey towards the village, Kena encounters an adorable, small species known as the Rot. (Imagine if Minions looked like grapes and were actually cute instead of irritating as hell).

Through bonding with these cuddly little fellows, she can use her staff to harness their power and clear the corruption that the masked man has afflicted. Kena’s journey then begins as she reaches the village, meets the spirits that live there and attempt to uncover what really happened to this hamlet.

This story setup is fine but nothing mind-blowing. The game doesn’t do a great job of informing you what a spirit guide is, who Kena is or what the Rot are. Frankly, the mystery of the Rot would have been more engaging and enjoyable if they weren’t, you know, called the Rot. With a name like that, you’re expecting something to go wrong and of course, it does. But for now, this is the setup we are given before we hit the real meat and potatoes of the game itself.

I like to start most of what I write with a synopsis but I don’t often critique it or remark on it a great deal until I start the meat of my review myself. Here, I’m going to say one thing before moving forward. I find the setup here to be a little half-baked. I don’t know enough about why Kena is here or about Spirit Guides themselves. A strong introduction helps the player become immediately enamoured with the world and inspired to keep playing. Kena falls a little short for me and is functional, if not spectacular. I mean, the setup is fine. But from the way the game looked, I set myself and expected more.

And that does lead on very well to my main points here. This isn’t a positive, happy, gushing review. Kena really is a graphical showcase for the PS5 but I found that the other area games failed to live up to that same sort of level. Kena and the Bridge of Spirits let me down. Here is why.

Let Down 1: Story is bland and a little hard to follow

I thought it would be prudent to begin this section by following up on what I have previously said about the story. And whilst the above synopsis only mentions the setup for the story itself, much of what I said above stands when speaking of the story as a whole.

This is your spoiler warning. You have been warned.

I found the story in Kena & The Bridge of Spirits to be serviceable at best and lacking and confused at worst. I’m going to mention a number of moments throughout the game to attempt to show this, thus the spoiler warning.

After reaching the village, Kena meets the spirits of two young children who are looking to free the soul of their brother, who remains tormented and trapped in the neighbouring woodland area. After speaking to the elderly man spirit in the graveyard and him giving you guidance on your path, you set out to help the young children and try and work out what has caused their brother Taro’s fate. I risk coming off heartless here and I did find these spirit toddlers to be absolutely adorable but I found the story of the older brother failing to protect the children’s lives against something that was impossible to protect against was ultimately bland and not at all engaging to watch. I think this may be a gameplay-story balance issue more than anything but I also put this disconnect between myself and Taro down to the fact you already know the fate of the people you are helping. You know how the story ends and within the first five minutes of being introduced to the memories of Taro, you can pretty much work out where the story is headed here. Something being familiar isn’t a huge detriment against a piece of media but it is something I feel I will mention quite a lot throughout this critique.

But you do eventually free Taro from his pain and he reunites with the adorable little green-haired cherubs before they all pass on to the other realm. It’s a nice familial drama that has a fine payoff but playing through it made me feel as if I was just going through the motions. But nevermind. The game quickly moves onto the next spirit you have to save to unlock the path to the shrine. Adira is a woodsmith who worked to increase the technology in the village and attempt to help it flourish over the coming years. However, and this is just an assumption as it is not clearly spelt out in-game but the harnessing of the energy disrupted the natural balance of power and caused the famine and illnesses that plagued the village thereon. Adira, much like Taro, has a spirit who wishes to save them and she is just as much a guidepost NPC as the twins were in the first run. It’s nice to learn about the friendship bordering on the romance that Adira and her partner had before the dreadful incident that took all of their lives. A classic story of a lover who waits for her love to return but they can’t reconnect due to the incident keeping them apart. The story is well-told but again I just found myself wanting more. I can’t really pin this down to any one thing as the presentation is still superb in and out of cutscenes but the message just was not clicking with me. I am most likely in the minority here and this tale will satisfy most players of this title but it just didn’t do enough to stay with me. I will likely forget much about Kena’s narrative in a week; forgetting most of the characters’ names and what the story and message of the game were. Again, not bad but just not good.

But you keep pushing on. You find yourself, after freeing the spirits and cleansing the surrounding regions ready to push on and defeat the vengeful spirit in charge; the former village chief Toshi. His tale is… less relatable. The first two spirits had relatable but predictable outcomes. Toshi’s just made him look like a dick. He was frustrated by the famine and did the one thing you should never do in a village culture such as this one. You betray the protector God. Toshi attempts to take his fate into his own hands and betrays the man who raised him, the old gent in the cemetery, steals his staff and uses it to defeat and kill the beast the protects the land. However, this ends up with the beast causing the corruption as it is defeated and wiping all life from the land. And yes, for those of you who knew ‘The Rot’ wasn’t going to be all good, the Rot is indeed all parts of the big godlike wolf who was defeated by Toshi. Toshi’s regrets and his irritations led him to commit this sin and he cannot come to terms with what he has done; vengefully protecting the village from outsiders and hoping to atone for his sins. He believes the Rot to be evil and he separates Kena from them before infusing the God-like wolf with his own corruption in a bombastic final fight. The fight itself is fun. The story resolution is as bland as it comes. Toshi lets go, he moves on, Kena prays and meditates and the Rot leave and regain their form as the protector of the valley. Alls well that ends well; let’s go to the pub for a pint. I just want to reiterate that none of this is bad. It is all just so painfully average that I find it difficult to enthuse about any of the narrative here.

I wish I could stop but it just keeps coming. The game also seems to skim over the backstory of Kena. Sure, it is mentioned sparingly throughout the journey that she is a spirit guide because of her father and she believes that following her path will help her make him proud one day but I just want more. Why not show where she grew up or give more insight into how one becomes a spirit guide or why one would wish to? In superb indie title Lake, the game let me fill in the blanks in terms of story depth and the relationships that were already pre-established in that world. Kena seems to try and do a similar thing but doesn’t give the player enough to work from. Kena is a nice girl but I don’t think she is actually any more than that. She sympathises with the plight of the spirits and wishes to help them but that’s just basic human empathy, right? Even when Kena is given a setback upon confronting the final vengeful spirit, the development is so… non-existent that it might as well not even have been included. I wanted to know more about Kena but felt that the game only glazed over what she could have been. Serviceable but not stellar.

My main problem is that the setup is just so bland. The story presents itself as wanting to have stakes and it is relatively foreboding in terms of presentation but it just doesn’t stick the landing. The story is no better than the functional works we were treated to back in the late ’90s and early 2000’s era platformers and it is only the style in which it is presented that has improved. Please understand that this story isn’t bad, it isn’t riddled with plot holes or massive inconsistencies but I feel like it does not do enough to stand out from many similar games it attempts to draw inspiration from. The story is functional but lacks the charm that kingpins like Spyro the Dragon or Jak and Daxter had. The story is too rigid in terms of its delivery and the only saving grace are the memories that you must search for and are incredibly missable if you are just following the path you are thrust down. Kena’s story is not a disaster but it is one that I wanted more from; ending up as just okay. And in a world where games get released at a mile a minute, okay isn’t enough to stand out in the sea of superb. And unfortunately, that meh feeling also translates to combat.

Let Down 2: The combat is button-mashy and tedious

Combat in games can be very difficult to balance. Warriors games are inherently repetitive but the simple thrill of tearing through enemies in such a high number goes some way in quelling the tedium that ‘button mashy’ combat can bring. I actually think I’m being a bit harsh here on Kena and that the combat is not all that bad. I don’t think that Kena’s actions are taught to you particularly well. The basic heavy attack and light attack combo are fine. It does feel like most battles end up just being three strikes, dodge, wait and three more strikes but this formula does depend a little on how you want to play and what difficulty setting you choose. Once you progress the story enough, you are given three big tools which add variety to the combat. The first of which is a bow which you use to shoot arrows. Woah. Revolution here, man. But seriously, the bow is nice to use and I found myself leaning on it quite a lot. The dual sense controller also had a great feel when pulling on the triggers when shooting a shot so, yeah, bow and arrow is fun to use and is a good tool for both platforming and combat. That is one thing I do want to give credit for as the abilities you can use in combat often transition to the overworld itself and it creates a beautiful feeling of unity and consistency in the world. It would be odd to be able to use a bow and arrow to shoot down a bird but now to shoot an out of place branch or lantern or to solve puzzles in the overworld and Kena blends the combat abilities and the exploration together very well indeed. Moving on from this though, the second unlockable ability involves bombs. These bombs are used to blow up particular, glittery blocks that when activated, move into a different position for a certain amount of time and are more often than not tests of your platforming ability and speed in working out the solution. I found that most of these were fine, if not astounding, but I did find that of all the platforming sections in the game, and we will get to them soon, that when using this bomb, I would become more frustrated as I used it. Some of the solutions are a little obtuse and the timing windows can be very narrow that it demands perfection. This isn’t a bad thing unto itself but it is a jarring jump from most of the fairweather, standard platforming that the majority of areas expect of you. In combat, the bomb is very situational; doing little damage to most enemies but can be used to either target weak points or to expose them. In the second boss (Adria), I felt the bombs were used to their full potential but were used sparingly or poorly after this. This fits into what I’ve been saying consistently; the mechanic is fine but it is just fine. Nothing special, nothing new, nothing exciting.

That does change when we unlock the third and final ability; the dash. Dashing is a let-down too but in a different way. Not because it is poorly implemented but because it is given to you too late. These dashes make platforming challenges more varied and difficult, blend well into combat and are fun and responsive to use. Compared to the bombs I previously mentioned, the dashing is much more fun and fulfilling to use. So why is it a let-down? Well, you get it in the final hour, maybe the final 2 hours of the game. That means the number of areas that use this fun mechanic is limited. If this were unlocked earlier, more puzzles could have combined multiple elements and been more enjoyable because of this. Very rarely does the game push you to use everything you have learned. In fact, the only time I remember this is the final boss; where you are thrown from the fight and forced to platform and fight your way back. And yeah, this is great fun. I felt challenged in a good way here and it was here that I began having more fun with the mechanics of Kena. It is a shame that this clicking came so late for me but I can appreciate that the developers were trying to include a gradual progression system; even though that system didn’t work for me.

You can upgrade the above abilities in the skill tree but none of these perks really added much; just being convenience based such as more shots of the arrow between recharges. Fine, functional but not fun. One other area the skill tree allowed you to upgrade is your cohesion with the Rot. By using your blueberry-like friends in battle, you can unleash certain variants of your normal attacks. Such as a Rot Arrow or a Rot Hammer Blow. You can also use the Rot as a sort of distraction technique that pins the enemy down whilst you wail on them. These do add a little more variety to the combat but… I dunno. They help the enemy health bars decrease faster, which is good. But they don’t feel different enough from a standard attack to feel cool or useful enough. I only really started using them as I approached the final area of the game. And I feel this is a point that is also repeating; I didn’t feel engaged in the game until it was coming to a close. And in a game that only lasts around 10 hours, that isn’t a great feeling. I might benefit from another playthrough but I just don’t feel motivated to do that because of the issues I have stated and, I hate to say it but the issues are going to continue.

One more thing to mention before I move on. Combat difficulty.

The combat is trickier on the higher settings as the enemies are more aggressive and reduce the amount of time you have to make your choices but I found the imbalance between bosses difficulty (extremely high) and normal fodder difficulty (fairly average) to lead me to playing on the lowest difficulty most of the time. The combat just didn’t speak to me enough for me to persevere with the higher difficulty challenges after trying them out. Those who like challenging games will definitely find something here as even on the lowest difficulty, this game can certainly challenge you when it wants to. This leads me to the bosses and they are the very definition of a mixed bag. I found the fights with Adria, Toshi and the Rot Beast to be engaging, fun and a fair challenge (on my chosen difficulty). I found the other bosses to be tedious, repetitive and boring. The bosses I enjoyed fighting used the mechanics of the game in new and interesting ways whereas most other small bosses were re-skinned enemies and just didn’t feel fun to fight. I have just remembered ‘The Hunter’ fight but this was so close in design to the Toshi fight that I sort of clump them together. It was a great test of my bow skill though.

So, me saying ‘the combat is button mashy and tedious’ is both fair and unfair. I could get through most fights by using the same tactics over and over again but the abilities themselves aren’t half-bad to use and how they are used outside of combat is worthy of praise. It is far from perfect but the combat will undoubtedly click with others more than it did me.

Let Down 3: Most of the enjoyable content seems to be optional

Going controversial again here, I see. I found the most enjoyable content happened after I cleared an area. I could explore the beautifully crafted overworld in search of hidden Rot, hidden collectables and just anything that looked cool. When playing the story of an area, the game is very linear. This is most certainly not a problem and linear games can be superb. I just feel that with such a pretty world surrounding you and one that you can explore after an area is finished, it feels as if a slightly more open approach to level design could have been worth exploring for the developers. I actually completed 4 or 5 optional puzzles in an area before realising they were optional and I wasn’t actually progressing the story. I wasn’t upset because they were fun to play through and work out how to get the owl statue in the right place or clear the corruption in time for the Rot to carry the right item past. These were fun little distractions that should have been advertised better as most are completely missable for those who just follow the trodden path. I did find myself doing fewer of these as I went through the game as they did repeat more often than I’d like (why are there so many owl statues in one small area?) and felt akin to Breath of the Wild korok seeds but they can be given a pass here because they are optional content. I am aware I am contradicting myself with this but I just found these moments of respite from the story to be enjoyable and just wish they were a little more scripted into the pacing of the game so more players will find their way to them.

Let Down 4: Platforming gameplay is no better than okay

This will be short. The platforming just feels off to me. The first jump is fine and the second jump slows momentum nicely; a sort of trade-off between distance and height. This is fine. I just can’t really put into words how… awkward I think she feels to control. Kena is heavy and a little cumbersome to move. I rarely found myself overshooting or undershooting a jump but would have been screwed without the double jump to save me a lot of the time. Also, the Uncharted style painted jump points are often hard to locate and can lead to frustrating waiting and looking for where to go. And when some of the challenges have such a short-timer, the slightly awkward jump can be an irritation. But…

I don’t hate the platforming here. This might be another example of expectation versus reality. Once I got the dash and had all of my abilities and I had been jumping around with Kena for a few hours, I did find myself enjoying the platforming more. Many of the challenges in platforming revolve around the bomb, a mechanic I didn’t warm to, but I think my problem here resulted from not getting used to the way she felt to move. Once I got used to it, the game was fine.

I feel like this is the perfect place to bring this up. I’m not a Zelda fan. I like BOTW and I enjoyed the Links Awakening remake for what it was but have not really gone deep into the other games. I believe they are decent puzzling-adventure games with bits of combat and platforming thrown in but it just never clicked with me before BOTW changed the formula forever. One game in this vain I did enjoy was Ary and the Secret of the Seasons. I played that game on Switch and it ran poorly and looked like it was projecting at 480p but I still loved my time with it. Ary even looks like Kena as a character. Both games involve puzzles and a unique mechanic that the game is centred on (The Rot in Kena and the Seasons mechanic in Ary).

Kena: Bridge of Spirits
Ary

You know what though? I preferred Ary despite the game not being as good overall. The game looks uglier, feels clunkier and is fairly buggy. The difference was I went into that game with no real hopes or expectations. I just picked it up and played it because I liked the box. Expectations on how a game should play have poisoned my opinion on Kena. I can still see the merits this game holds and enjoy a lot of what it does but… it just hasn’t wormed its way into my heart the way Ary did. And I hold the visuals slightly accountable for this. It makes the game look AAA. It makes the game seem polished and as if it were made by a seasoned studio. The game is derivative of many others and the new things that are brought don’t do enough to make it stand out above the crowd. Combat, platforming, sound and story are all just fine but nothing stands up to the beauty the game projects on you at the very start. This game wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be… And that brings us to the Crux of the Matter.

The Crux of the Matter:

All of the above complaints were valid and things I truly feel but nothing was game-breaking. Everything works and nothing is truly bad. It’s just painfully average and is reminiscent of a combat-heavy 3D platformer from 2002 mixed with Legend of Zelda and Pikmin. Takes so many influences but struggles for its own identity. Without the graphics, it would be pretty much nothing. Sometimes an average game is worse than a bad game. This game is still fine. There is undoubtedly a group of people out there who will adore Kena for the gameplay and the puzzles and the combat and not just the pretty face. But, for me, this game is an average game with a beautiful outer crust. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play it; just that you should go in with tempered hopes. I was my own worst enemy going into this one and hopefully, I’ll learn from this in the future. To go in with an open mind and to leave my preconceptions at the door. And as a man who loves games like Alan Hansen’s Sports Challenge and Slide Stars, I can appreciate games that aren’t critically superb. This one just didn’t work for me.

Kena and the Bridge of Spirits: 6.4/10– Painfully average but a beautiful face and strong end bring up my lasting impression.

Thanks for reading. I don’t regret playing this game but, when I think about stopping 4-5 times during the 10-hour playthrough, I can’t pretend to love something that I don’. I truly recommend giving this game a shot and seeing if it clicks. I loved Croc as a child and that game is far from perfect, even with nostalgia goggles. Sometimes a game doesn’t have that wide-ranging appeal. They don’t need to.

And on that note, I was Benjamin Wagner and I endorse this message.

One response to “Kena & The Bridge of Spirits is just a pretty face”

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