Kena: The Bridge of Spirits is a beautiful debut indie title unfortunately frustrated by flat design decisions and storytelling.
Kena Bridge of Spirits is the debut game of Ember Lab Studios. It proves without a shadow of a doubt that Indies can compete with the best of the industry on a purely graphical level.
(As long as they also have a long history in Animation Production and a solid foundation of cash).
As debut games go, Ember Labs have done impressive work. They’ve created a beautiful, textbook third person action platformer.
Possibly too textbook. Because as beautifully rendered as Kena Bridge of Spirits is, it’s also a hollow story told through clichéd game design.
It’s a third person action platformer, in the classic PS2 sense. Think original Jak and Daxter and their ilk. Explore an openish world, platform around a natural environment, fight enemies in third person combat built around light and heavy attacks, plus a few abilities that help solve puzzles too.
All of this is set in a South East Asian inspired fantasy land, where Kena is a spirit guide. Her duty is to bring restless spirits to peace. She finds herself in a valley very much in need of her services. A destroyed village with a deceased population in the middle of a wilderness corrupted in very visible ways.
Colour is stripped from the world, and replaced with tendrils of darkness and inky miasma. Only by helping trapped spirits pass on and destroying the corruption can Kena save the valley and restore balance.
First things first, Kena Bridge of Spirits is gorgeous looking and feeling. Every animation is smooth and cinematic, every character beautifully realised. It’s easy to tell that this is a game from a dedicated animation studio, because there’s a level of quality that can only come from experience in design.
In particular, that design experience comes across heavily in Kena’s Companions/Power up ability, The Rot.
The Rot feel precision engineered to be cute. Effectively the Soot Sprites from Spirited Away, these tiny minion-like creatures have massive saucer plate eyes and the ability to be dressed up in tiny hats to distinguish them. The tiny hats are, in fact, adorable. As you advance through the world, you’ll unlock more and more Rot (and hats). There’s even a beautiful effect where they start to materialise and appear in the world around you, drawing your eye and reinforcing the good you’re doing in that they feel safe to come out.
When they do come out, they help you in combat and they help solve puzzles. This is an homage to PS2 era Action Platformers, so of course we’ve got puzzles. We’ve got all the standbys. Platforming with double jumps, targets to find for your missile attacks, stopping objects in mid air. All very familiar.
What helps a little in this regard is the open world aspect. Kena has a sense of scale that really works, most importantly in how your actions affect that world.
There’s an obvious positive effect in the form of the world having corruption removed, so you can explore previous areas and hunt down secrets or collectibles.
In the latter case, there’s a lovely element of helping the ruined village, removing corruption through finding objects that belonged to the villagers, and delivering them to their resting places. The reward is either more rot, more currency or more skill points. And usually a combat encounter. It also helps clean up the village visually, helping the story progression.
So far, so positive. A competently made action platformer with a gorgeous aesthetic style, hitting all the expected notes of a sixth generation throwback.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Kena. All of the above is true. It’s just that every part of Kena is game designed within an inch of its life, polished to a teflon sheen. If you’ve played any action platformer before, you’ve played Kena.
The issue then is that there is nothing in this game to hold on to that makes Kena feel special.
With interestingly presented narrative work, a unique mechanic or even just a less formulaic design, Kena would be a far easier game to stick with.
Instead, you simply slide off.
And then it’s far too easy to fall into the doldrums of the game’s failings. With no high points to raise the mood, the trite narrative, constant and irritating boss battles, the frustrating camera and the miserable puzzle design are too easy to wallow in.
The puzzle design can be encapsulated in how the Rot are both essential, and deeply frustrating. Press X, apply rot. Press LB, apply shield burst. Or direct Rot to carry the object to the clearly marked platforming location.
Later areas make use of the bow to strike far off targets in a set order, or the bombs to hold platforms in stasis while you climb them. All very clear application of skills to the one object in the open world. The exception is the Rot Dragon puzzles. These deeply clunky puzzles see the player directly control a Dragon snake shaped mob of rot at the same time as Kena.
If they attack the impassable red goop scattered round the world, they will destroy it. But the rot dragon expends energy to move and attack. So if you can’t do it all in one go, you’ll need to walk back to the source and start again.
The puzzle is simply pathfinding efficiently, except you’re almost always just following a linear path. The difficulty comes from a distance/time constraint, and from some truly awful controls. A focussed field of view pulls in close to Kena, while you have to use one control stick each to move Kena and the Rot. Who of course can’t get too far from each other.
It never once felt satisfying to control, and every time I found a new version it made me sigh a little.
This incredibly simplified design and aggravatingly clingy camera equally cause the combat to become interminable.
Combat broadly centres around either Closed arenas where enemies have to be destroyed to escape, or boss fights. The general loop is that you can use your standard attacks and dodges for slow, methodically chipping at health bars. Or you can use a special attack, which requires you to earn “courage” for the Rot which are afraid to help you out. Until you batter some enemies around.
So you build courage for the rot by killing enemies. That will then let you use the rot to destroy enemy spawners/stun bigger enemies. This unfortunately means you have to have additional random enemies in every fight to get courage in order to use special rot moves, which are functionally the only things that can do serious damage unless you hit weak spots.
In particular, those weak spots are infuriating. Every fight comes down to shooting at a tiny orange weakspot with the bow, usually placed on the rear of the boss. In particular, the back of the elbow and hand.
Have you ever tried to shoot the back of the elbow of a creature two times your size, while dodge rolling around it and having the camera locked on to it’s head? Only for the very blatant attack window pause in it’s animation to immediately shift to a 360 wave attack after?
Infuriating. Especially in the default normal difficulty. Kena can only take three or four hits from an enemy. More if you have enough rot courage earned to grab the 1-2 health pickups. Which also requires you to lock on and activate them, in the middle of the fight.
You will almost certainly take hits.
This is exacerbated by a camera that pulls in tight for you to take shots, (needed to hit weak spots) or use the rot (needed to acquire healing/hit other weak spots) which means you’ll immediately take damage from things that were previously on your peripheral vision and suddenly aren’t.
The boss fights then don’t do Kena any favours, which is even more frustrating as they’re functionally the main thing you’re playing for mechanically and narratively. They’re the end point of each section of the game, and also the only points of narrative development for Kena.
It’s not even like they can’t tell an interesting story. The stories of the spirits you’re trying to save are incredibly rendered. A boy desperately seeking to protect his siblings as the world falls apart around them and they’re abandoned by their elders. A woman willing to do anything to get her partner Hana back, building a gigantic lighthouse to guide her home, and desecrating her culture to do it.
Both of those stories rock, and are relayed in sumptuously gorgeous cutscenes, filled with action.
But they’re only relayed through cutscenes. And Kena’s greatest problem is that you play through a level and a bunch of mini boss fights and only then it tells you why you should have cared about that. In a cutscene. It’s infuriating storytelling in any medium, but especially games.
The story in Kena is the reward for playing through the game, rather than something experienced playing through the game.
It’s also an issue because Kena herself is barely a character. The most characterisation comes from DreamWorks style smirks at the actions of other actors. Her voice direction comes out as limp, ethereal and waifish, in a story about being a steward and guide of spirits, returning them to rest.
Every moment of catharsis or development comes in the very pretty cutscenes. But never for her. Instead, she’s just buffeted around cleaning up the actions of others. There’s no motivation of her own, no reaction to the world, beyond simply getting to the next spirit and following directions. It’s an aimless reactionism in the narrative of the game that unfortunately highlights the flaws of the structure as a whole.
I get the appeal behind Kena Bridge of Spirits, from both a design and a player perspective. It’s fun and meaningful to have a polished, modern version of a thing you already liked.
The issue is that Kena never gives you a reason to play beyond simply being a polished modern version of a thing you already liked.
I don’t think Kena was meant to be some deep study on the genre. It didn’t have to subvert expectations in any way. I think everything about Kena was designed around exactly recreating that mechanical pleasure of playing that specific type of game. That’s okay!
And I will repeat myself, Ember Labs have done an incredible job with creating Kena Bridge of Spirits. They’ve successfully mechanically reflected a sixth generation Action Platformer, in a beautiful animated aesthetic style. As an indie team with no publisher!
But it’s just a mirror image. Of games which still exist and are beloved. It’s a copy of entries in a genre someone clearly adored. It mimics the conventions of those games, but doesn’t do enough to then stand apart from them. It has the shape of a narrative, but none of the weight. A reflection with softened edges.
I hope Ember Labs have a bright future. I deeply look forward to playing whatever comes next from them. It would just be nice if they can create something next time that does more than just recreate form and function. Something with some spirit of its own.