Ember Lab’s first foray into video games delivers an emotionally powerful tale that punches way above it’s weight class.
When fans were treated to the first major showcase for the PlayStation 5, Ember Lab, a small Los Angelos based studio who primarily up to this point had only produced high budget commercials or animated shorts left, perhaps, the largest impression among many AAA standouts. Kena: Bridge of Spirits (pronounced Kay-na) promised excellent animation and tone, but could it deliver on it’s story and gameplay? Would the talented group at Ember Lab be able to transition into full on video game development? I’m happy to report that not only is Kena a joy to play, but it also transports players to a beautifully fleshed out world full of vibrant life and weaves a wonderful story about love, fear, and regret.
Players take on the role of Kena, a spirit guide whose job is to assist troubled spirits who haven’t been able tp peacefully pass on to the afterlife due to some traumatic life event. Kena is on a quest to the Sacred Mountain Shrine which powers and balances the entire land. Though, something is amiss as the land has begun to succumb to poison and infestation. Early in your journey you’ll discover the Rot, an incredibly cute group of creatures which aid Kena in pushing the poison out of the land.
Kena learns from the Village Elder of the connection that masks have with the villagers. Upon death, a mask was carved to honor that person and to help the spirit to pass from this life to the next. In order to reach her destination Kena must help 3 trapped spirits who’ve failed to truly pass on due to life tragedy. Each of the 3 spirits, Taro, Adira, and Toshi all have wonderfully fleshed out back stories which provide great incentive for players to uncover the mysteries behind their respective pasts.
The cast isn’t huge but Kena crosses paths with several characters throughout her journey. The quality in which the narrative unfolds is largely thanks to the excellent voice work driving these characters. The game continually delivers these performances which could easily go toe to toe with any modern animated movie. Combine that with the fantastic visuals and Ember Lab truly has captured a Pixar-like feel in video game form. Everything is well crafted. From the world, to the characters, to the plot – it all gels together and creates an intriguing story that builds to a satisfying crescendo.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a 3D, action-adventure game with a narrative focus. It blends exploration, platforming, and combat into a well rounded package – a formula which games like Uncharted have perfected over the years. The Uncharted comparison is perhaps both unfair and complimentary at the same time. You see, Ember Lab is a fraction of the size of studios such as Naughty Dog or Guerrilla Games, yet Kena can be uttered in the same breath as some of their games. The lush environments are on par with any of Nathan Drake’s jaunts. The bow and arrow mechanic feels tight and stands on equal footing with Horizon Zero Dawn’s. The combat tosses light and heavy attacks onto the shoulder buttons and makes parrying and dodging absolutely crucial. While not on the same difficulty, this creates frantic boss encounters that offer an extremely satisfying adrenaline rush not unlike recent From Software games.
Throughout her adventure Kena will acquire various new abilities that help her with combat or traversal. The game is incredibly well paced and introduces each new mechanic in a way that perfectly compliments the world you’re exploring. Metroidvania touches are scattered throughout the game, so there’s always something exciting already in your mind when you get any new power. I had an incredibly fun time discovering hidden secrets and using my full bag of tricks to get around this gorgeous world.
For combat, players are equipped with a staff for melee strikes and a bow for long distance. These basics along with parrying and using the Rot, make up the core of any combat encounter. Rot can be used to seize an enemy temporarily or used to infuse your arrow with power for a devastating blow. The combat wrinkles that the game introduces aren’t mold breaking but they’re satisfying nonetheless. Boss fights in particular are numerous and increasingly epic. There are some truly special boss fights in this game thanks, in part, to the excellent art design, but also thanks to the outstanding combat framework that Ember Lab has built.
Ember Lab’s founders and core members have a shared background in art and animation. It certainly shows because Kena: Bridge of Spirits is one of the absolute best looking games I’ve ever played, AAA or not. It all starts with the art design. Well realized environments which are dense and detailed are the norm for Kena. Sun rays pierce through tree branches and water streams beautifully glisten. It’s kinda hard to believe it’s all coming from such a small studio comparatively speaking.
Music in Kena: Bridge of Spirits deserves special mention. The game takes on many different tones and each track is a perfect compliment to the atmosphere at the time. Sweeping strings will stir you during serious scenes or action-heavy moments, while flutes and xylophones bring lighter tones when poking around the village. The arrangements and orchestration are simply infectious and add a lot to the overall presentation.
I did notice some slight polygonal tearing from time to time and the smooth gameplay would stutter ever so slightly each time Kena would reach a new biome area. These are small gripes in what is an overall stellar looking game. My time was spent on the PS5 version of the game which provides a 60FPS performance mode. Outside of the aforementioned hiccups when entering new areas, the performance felt buttery smooth and locked at 60FPS. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is also available for PS4 and PC via the Epic Games Store.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a focused game that knows exactly what it wants to be. It leans into the studio’s strength of art and animation and delivers a rookie effort that stands tall along with other great games of the genre. It’s an homage to more focused games of yesteryear – games that graced the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation 2 that could be completed in 10-15 hours and didn’t require immense investment on the players’ part. It gets in, leaves a lasting impression, and gets out. At $40 MSRP, Kena is perfectly priced and is a game that fans of the genre simply shouldn’t miss.
Note for Parents
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is rated “T” (Teen) for fantasy violence. There are themes of love, fear, and regret that appear in the game. The lore is based on eastern religions with an emphasis on spirits passing to the afterlife. There is a depiction of a lesbian relationship in the game which is featured in the 2nd quarter of the game.