What happens when you cross Spyro with Pikmin, add modern technology, and throw in some industry-defining animation work? You get Kena: Bridge of Spirits.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the debut game from Ember Lab, a studio primarily known for their excellent animation work such as their Majora’s Mask reel back in 2016. Creating a game is hard enough. That challenge is increased when you’re creating your first game. Yet somehow, Ember Lab knocked it out of the park.
A World Worth Exploring
In Kena: Bridge of Spirits, you play as Kena. She’s a young Spirit Guide who helps shepherd spirits from this world to the next. As you start the game, a catastrophe has taken place in a nearby village, causing corruption to plague the land. The villagers are scattered and need your help cleansing the land and restoring their home.
It turns out each of these areas have a specific villager in need of your help. Just like each biome, these characters are wholly unique to their respective area, yet remain connected to the overarching world. They all initially ventured into these areas to try and help their village and cure this corruption. But something happened to them, effectively capturing them in a corrupted state. You travel each of these areas, solve puzzles, clear out corruption, and ultimately rescue that character.
For example, the forested area sees you helping two young villagers help rescue their older brother. Their brother, feeling the weight of responsibility after the death of his parents, turned to desperation to help provide for his younger siblings. As you progress through this forest, you learn more about his desperation and his desire to help his siblings at all costs. Such personal stories make the characters more human. I felt compelled to help them.
Your adventures take you through a staggeringly beautiful world across a few different biomes. You’ll experience an ominous forest, a more open field, the village which acts as your pseudo hub, and a fourth area which I simply won’t spoil. You’ll have to discover this for yourself.
It’s clear Ember Lab spent the effort and resources to make each area feel wholly unique, yet unquestionably connected to the wider world. Such level design is not easy to accomplish. In some games, like Skyrim, you can clearly tell when the fall forest ends and the marshy part begins. I’ve always found such clear borders to pull me out of the experience slightly because nature simply doesn’t behave that way.
I’m not saying Kena’s areas don’t have their own borders. But these borders are incredibly blurred. It feels more natural, more organic. The forest naturally gives way to the village, which then seamlessly spills out into a field. I love this push towards a more seamless world design as it does much to aid my immersion.
I would be remiss if I failed to discuss the fantastic music. It’s not often we hear gamelan in games, but it’s used to great effect in Kena: Bridge of Spirits. The use of non-traditional instruments creates an otherworldly feel, as if you’re exploring a world which looks familiar but feels different. Like the animation, the music does much to strengthen the emotional core of the storytelling.
Platforming, while not reinvented, is still executed in an excellent way. My ability to traverse the environment increased as I progressed through the game. For example, I gained the ability to fire my bow at certain flowers which acted like a sort of hookshot, pulling me across. Certain puzzles demanded the chaining of these hookshots to traverse a space in a set time. We’ve seen such hookshots in games before. But that doesn’t mean these mechanics and abilities can’t be fun.
Such abilities allow you to explore previously inaccessible areas. And it’s this drip feed of traversal abilities which enables an engaging, if not entirely new, platforming experience. Because this drip feed continually provided me access to hitherto locked off areas, exploration always felt fun. I always felt like I was discovering something new every time I leapt onto a ledge using a newly earned ability.
Ember Lab doesn’t bring anything groundbreaking to the mix here in the way Kojima gamified the basic mechanic of walking. But they just don’t need to. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel if the wheel is already so good. Just use the wheel.
A New Benchmark
Ok, I’ve put this off for far too long. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the most beautiful game I’ve played this year. It seems Ember Lab took virtually every feature of Unreal Engine and threw them into Kena: Bridge of Spirits. The entire game is awash with color. It strikes a phenomenal balance between photorealism and hyper stylization, edging towards the latter.
Materials are rich with greatly detailed shaders for things like cloth and mud. Textures are sharp and detailed. Subsurface scattering and great texture work give character skin a rich appearance, especially given the Pixar-like character designs. Lighting is a standout in Kena. While there’s no real-time ray tracing, what we do get is some pretty remarkable baked lighting in addition to truly superb particle effects.
But the star of the show is the animation. We are at a point where real-time rendering can match offline animation. Insomniac have led the charge in this space with their most recent Ratchet & Clank title. Likewise, Ember Lab have proven their skill here with aplomb.
In an odd way, Kena: Bridge of Spirits reminds me a lot of Death Stranding. Kojima’s masterpiece has the best character rendering I’ve ever seen in any game, something I remarked on in my review. It is the benchmark for real-time character rendering in games.
Similarly, I believe Kena: Bridge of Spirits is now the benchmark for real-time animation. I cannot overstate just how unbelievably outstanding the animation work is in Kena. This includes the obvious things like combat animation, character rigging, and traversal.
But where Kena stands head and shoulders above the rest of the industry is in all the animation between these states. Idle animations for Rot are so expressive and cute, whether they’re waving at the camera, spinning around, or just tumbling. It’s all so precise yet so clearly artistic.
Animations for Kena and the other characters you meet are equally impressive. But what makes this animation work so impactful is all of it – the idle animations, the subtle raising of an eyebrow to wordlessly convey an entire thought, the hyper stylized stretching and squashing – is in service of telling the story through emotion. Thus, the story and storytelling are inarguably strengthened by the animation.
This emotional effectiveness is precisely because Ember Lab are not chasing realism in their animation. As with human faces in rendering, you can hit an uncanny valley with animation. While Kojima solved this by going all-in on creating hyper realistic renderings of his actors, Ember Lab solved this by going in the opposite direction by creating hyper stylized animation. And it works brilliantly.
I came to genuinely care about these characters purely on the strength of the animation work alone. The expressiveness of each action, the almost cartoon-like nature of the movements, and the evocativeness of the emotion are all painstakingly brought to life by the insane talent at Ember Lab. Upon completing Kena: Bridge of Spirits, I came away realizing I had just witnessed a watershed moment in real-time animation.
Yes. The animation is that good.
An Uneven Curve
If you’ve ever played Pikmin, you’ll no doubt be familiar with the function served by the titular Pikmin. As you explored the land, you collected these small creatures called Pikmin. These Pikmin then helped perform certain activities like moving objects from one place to the next. You could also use them in combat to attack your enemies. They were cute, helpful, and deceivingly lethal.
Throughout your adventures, you’ll slowly but surely discover Rot. The easiest way I can describe Rot is to compare them to Pikmin. They’re incredibly cute little nuggets of dough which help you move objects, clear corruption from areas, and allow you to perform special combat actions.
You can upgrade your skills and these combat actions as you collect more Rot. These skill lines allow you to improve your melee damage, perform certain combos, and strengthen your shield. Pro tip, invest in your shield early on. After around 20 hours of play, I ended the game with all such skills and abilities unlocked. I also found myself using all these abilities. I never once felt any of them were throwaway. Whether in combat or in platforming as I outlined above, these skills all felt like they served a purpose.
There is something to be said about games which require you to make careful choices for skills, like The Witcher 3. I believe there is equal value in those games which allow you to unlock all abilities. This makes me feel that I (the player) improved along with the character. By the end of the game, I (the player) felt powerful just like Kena.
Combat mechanics in Kena are pretty familiar to anyone who’s played an action game in the past few years. You’ve got a light attack, heavy attack, shield, and the ability to parry. The parry window is super narrow, even after Ember Lab issued a patch to widen it.
And this is perhaps my sole criticism of Kena. The combat, while mechanically competent, never felt tuned quite right in certain boss fights. Combat tuning is not an easy thing to nail down. Ideally, you want to increase challenge proportionally with player skill and acquisition of abilities. I felt the difficulty curve of the combat here was tuned a bit ahead of these mechanics. There were some boss fights which felt frustrating at points.
For example, boss enemies telegraph their moves giving you the chance to react. However, one particular boss fight felt inconsistent as I always felt like I dodged during a certain telegraph, only to then be sideswiped. I love challenging combat. But no one wants that challenge to veer into the unfair. And in that specific encounter, I felt Kena strayed across that line.
I want to make it plain this unevenness was not felt throughout the entire game. In addition to the encounter I mention above, I can count on one hand the times I felt the combat tuning was slightly off. It was absolutely not something which detracted from my overall enjoyment of Kena.
In a game like Dark Souls which is all about boss fights and combat, bad tuning can ruin the game. But to me, these boss fights were secondary to the world-building, story, platforming, and exploration. Instead, this critique is more like feedback for the team at Ember Lab. This is something a sequel or a second game from Ember Lab can address and improve upon.
While you can’t customize Kena’s look through armor or weapons, you can customize the look of your Rot. This is a game which rewards exploration with one of those collectibles being hats for your Rot. There are so many hats you can find across the world which you can then use to outfit your Rot. For example, my Rot had pancake hats, mushroom hats, ladybug hats, and so much more by the end of the game.
And you can do all this customization without a single whiff of microtransactions. That’s right. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a content-complete game. You get the full package for your money. No creating the content and selling it back to you later. No siphoning off cosmetics only to nickel and dime you after the fact. You pay once and get the full game. What a concept.
Play This Game
I still cannot believe Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the first game from Ember Lab. During my entire round of play, I didn’t encounter a single bug. Playing on an RTX 3080 with an i7 8700k, I was able to maintain around 60fps at 4K when playing at maxed settings.
Not a single bug from a studio’s first effort. Let’s take a moment and appreciate that. I honestly don’t understand that in a world where the mentality revolves around releasing an unfinished product as soon as possible to collect money, and then maybe patching it after launch.
When I consider my bug-free experience, groundbreaking animation work, the exemplary visuals, evocative music, and fantastic storytelling, it’s clear Kena: Bridge of Spirits is greater than the sum of its parts.
But for my combat critique, I really do believe Kena: Bridge of Spirits is knocking on that “Masterpiece” door. For those who prioritize combat, you may be left frustrated. But I prioritize a beautiful world, wonderful music, magnificent platforming, and phenomenal tech. And on those grounds alone, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a triumph, an utterly brilliant experience.
And when each of those parts are this good, this lovingly crafted, this polished, it’s incredibly difficult to ignore. Ember Lab have created something truly special. This is a gem. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the best game I’ve played all year. And you should play it.