Kena: Bridge of Spirits

When it was first announced back in June of 2020, it was immediately evident that Kena: Bridge of Spirits had a unique look, heavily inspired by the likes of Pixar’s stable of animated movies. I guess this isn’t all that surprising, since developer/publisher Ember Lab has a background in animation.

Every person and creature in Kena sports the world’s widest eyes; at once both expressive and infinitely adorable. The little siblings you find along your journey feel like they just “walked off the set” of Up or Luca. And the little Rot creatures look like they were made for one sole purpose: to be squeezed and cuddled. As someone who’s not usually into cutesy games, I was surprised to find this PlayStation and PC darling landing pretty high on my list of anticipated releases this year. 

There were a few delays, of course, which in hindsight now seem like mere blips considering how little time actually spanned between its announcement and actual, eventual release (unlike, say, Cyberpunk 2077, which seemed like it was on an indefinite journey to nowhere before it actually came out — though I realize there is a difference in scope between the two). But now that it is actually here and I’ve had some time to play it, I must say that Kena: Bridge of Spirits does not disappoint. Not only is it a competent, well-crafted adventure, but Kena is also just oozing with charm.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Kena is a gorgeous game, no doubts can be cast there. The game world is teeming with movement, and the verisimilitude of life extends beyond the immediate corridor disguised as a forest path you find yourself traversing. The object physics help sell this place as a real, lived-in world of sorts, as objects react to your movements and your pulsating energy gusts. The way the little bells on fast-travel shrines dangle about, or the general motion of the foliage dancing in the currents of a passing breeze — it all looks incredible, and it reminds me at times of the excellent flora found in another PlayStation title: Ghost of Tsushima.

But what stands out the most is the attention and detail that went into animating the facial expressions and body language of the small cast of characters. Kena really does feel more akin to watching an animated movie than it does simply playing a video game. There is a level of moisture present in the character’s eyes that lends a sense of realism, even if the animation style couldn’t be further from photorealistic. Even though everyone looks like a cherub, you can pinpoint actual expressions of very specific emotions that transcend the otherwise otherworldly look and feel of the game. 

And it is perhaps because Kena isn’t striving for realism that these expressions of emotions don’t get lost in translation, as I feel it can in other games. I love Ghost of Tsushima, but the facial animations in Ghost feel downright wooden in comparison to Kena‘s. I’m even impressed by the way that Kena runs — there is a light, lilting hop in every step, and her double jump feels like she’s floating on bubbles.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

It’s difficult to put into words just how well-made and unique Kena is. I am rooting for it to do well, because I would love to see more games like Kena, and I am also really looking forward to seeing what Ember Lab will deliver in their sophomore outing.

Oh, did I not mention that this is the studio’s first friggin’ game?

If you haven’t yet checked Kena out, you should — you might be pleasantly surprised by it. I think there are some comparisons that can be made to Ratchet and Clank, although mostly on a surface level, as both are cute adventure games with action and platforming. I would say some of the platforming in Kena more closely resembles early Uncharted games — where you’re clamoring along ledges and cliffsides over vast chasms — and the combat feels more like an action RPG, with your heavy and light melee attacks and the ability to parry and counterattack. 

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

At the end of the day, Kena is a competent action-adventure title wrapped up in an adorable and charming package. I really hope this doesn’t get lost in the mix (this is a pretty stacked month of games, after all). Although I wouldn’t necessarily say this is game-of-the-year material (though I’m sure it will make a number of nomination lists), Kena: Bridge of Spirits has more than earned my accolades. It’s even rewarded me with enough cuteness to warm the darkest chambers of my heart.

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