It’s no secret I was just about as spirited as anyone when it came to the release of Kena: Bridge of Spirits at the end of September – and, in spite of the swathe of sexy releases that challenged her for the top spot, she stood tall atop the massive mountains and lush forests that the game lovingly presents before our awestruck eyes.
But I don’t think even I was prepared for the delicious and delightful platter that Ember Lab cobbled together. Renowned across the web for their haunting Majora’s Mask movie, it was clear the animation studio would deliver something eye-simmeringly picturesque for all to behold, but – as debut video games go – I’ve rarely been quite so impressed or left feeling both fulfilled and itching for more.
Evidently lovers of the video game medium, Ember Lab’s self-professed passion for telling stories is on show by the bucketload here – and whether you’re a relatively casual gamer or someone who’s been button-bashing since the likes of Majora’s Mask were swirling around our CRT screens, Kena: Bridge of Spirits has so much to offer. It’s a love letter to video gaming and storytelling in equal measure, and all in one gorgeous package – something I’m not sure too many other video-game releases this year can boast.
Whilst the storytelling sparks of a Life is Strange: True Colors or the gameplay gumption of a Metroid Dread are undeniable, video games tend to lean one way or the other: it’s all about the story, or it’s all about the smashing of buttons. And yet, what Kena: Bridge of Spirits does so deftly is bring the two together in harmony – a theme of the game itself, and a sensation I felt repeatedly as I explored the desolate mountain village and its surrounding landscapes.
This harmony is something to be praised: a debut game unafraid to attempt both heart-wrenching and heart-warming narrative heft as well as genuinely ass-kicking combat and brilliantly balanced adventure-platforming action. For new gamers, the difficulty and learning curves are wonderfully paced, and for the more experienced video game gurus out there, the combat system is deceivingly broad in its application and challenge – and that’s before we even get to the boss battles!
Spread out so as to feel genuinely momentous, the big boss battles in Kena: Bridge of Spirits are balanced somewhere between infuriatingly tricky and remarkably satisfying – another harmonious element of Ember Lab’s delivery. As the game goes on, more and more power-ups are unlocked that genuinely complement the combat presented as you progress; you’ll need to be adept at chaining together Kena’s different abilities if you want to succeed without becoming a spirit yourself!
But combat aside, it’s the stories told that win the day here – and that’s not just the main plotline. Every detail Kena encounters paints a picture of nostalgia and tradition, conjuring a forgotten world that feels totally enrapturing and realised (especially given the game’s jaw-dropping visual acumen).
The main story itself is one of tragedy and great sadness, but also one that left me feeling uplifted and opened my eyes to some of life’s larger lessons surrounding regret, indecision and love. It’s easy to dismiss Kena and her cutesy Rot followers as something aimed primarily at children, but I was pleased to find that is absolutely not the case at all: there’s so much written in here that will resonate with young and old alike, and that’s not an accomplishment that should be taken lightly.
I found myself lost in far more than just the unfolding mysteries of the spirits Kena is looking to bring to rest, too. Usually indifferent about the inclusion of Photo Modes within games, I found myself so stunned by some of the game’s locations and visuals that I had to stop and take a snap (some of which you’ll see littered throughout this review). And when I wasn’t pausing to drink in the visuals, I was lovingly exploring every nook and cranny the game presented to me – a curiosity that had me stumble across the odd glitch and clipping issue as I delved too deeply, but that really is one of my only gripes with this bold adventure. And besides: if a game is encouraging quite this level of intrigue, I can forgive the odd flickering texture or unmapped platform.
Comparisons to iconic series like The Legend of Zelda and Tomb Raider are totally fair ones, but that’s also to the game’s credit. Mid-air slow-mo for bow-and-arrow shooting ala Breath of the Wild is too great a mechanic not to include, and the lush landscapes and caverns the game hides away for the eagle-eyed of us out there only adds to the immersion. And, as lovers of The Legend of Zelda, Ember Lab’s odd homage here and there only adds to Kena’s charm: it’s a loving and fitting tribute to its gaming predecessors much in the same way the storyline is a tribute to ancient east-Asian culture. Put all of that together with the divine gamelan soundtrack and in-game audio cues, and the entire experience is irresistible.
If you haven’t played Kena: Bridge of Spirits yet – or, Rot forbid, it isn’t even on your radar – I implore you to take a trek into the overgrown wilderness at the foot of the Mountain Shrine. If you love the adventuring and light-RPG elements of the Zelda franchise as well as the charming visuals of Studio Ghibli, this is one you cannot miss. And for everyone else, I’d say to take a gamble and get your Rot on: it’s oddly unique in spite of its plethora of borrowings, and an experience that will earnestly resonate with me for a long time to come (perhaps until the sequel, please and thank you Ember Lab!)
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