Kena: Bridge of Spirits
(Available for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4 and PC)
(PlayStation 5 version used for review)
Kena Bridge of Spirits is the first game from Studio Ember Lab and is the last major PlayStation exclusive for 2021 with Horizon Forbidden West being pushed back to February. The game was first shown last year at the PlayStation 5 reveal presentation, and since then the art style alone got many people like myself intrigued and it looked like it would be a big part of PlayStation’s 2021. This is an action/adventure game about a Sprit guide named Kena, attempting to restore a land she has travelled to from the infection that has spread across it. She is joined by many cute creatures called The Rot, which give her access to several abilities to purify the land and lead the various Spirits she comes across, to rest. The game has a world to explore with a central village hub and 3 areas you unlock over time with a few collectables, such as new hats for The Rot, as well as extra rot to upgrade abilities.
- Graphics, Art style and Performance: Right off the bat the game looks brilliant. Rather like the story Studio Ghibli, it has clearly been an influence on the world and character designs, and the creators have done an excellent job. I think it’s one of the better looking games on PlayStation 5 currently, with it really feeling like you can get lost in the nature. I wouldn’t say that it quite achieves that to the same extent Breath of the Wild does but still looks great. As for performance, well I can only speak of the PS5 version, but in that case the game offers 2 options; Graphics mode, which has the game run at locked 30 frames per Seconds at 4K resolution, or Performance mode which has the game target 60 FPS at 4K. Despite saying it’s only targeting 60, I found when in performance mode, it hit that pretty well and there were no visible frame rate drops. With games like this you really want 60, so with no obvious frame rate drops I would say, play this game in Performance mode at all times.
- Soundtrack: The music has clearly had a lot of effort put in and it pays off. Like the world and character designs, the soundtracks take a lot of influence from various Asian cultures and uses it to great effect with atmospheric music for the environment, and bombastic for combat. My pre order was well worth it since I got a digital copy of the soundtrack with my purchase, and it has been great to listen back to some of these tracks.
- Puzzles: The puzzles in this game are just the way I like them, challenging without being too cryptic and I was able to figure out most of them through observation. They usually are platforming based as well, so merge well into the gameplay. Only a couple of duds in the bunch really.
- Combat: Now while the combat looks similar to that of Zelda in the trailers, it ends up playing a lot more like Bloodborne weirdly. This is emphasised by the use of the R1 trigger for light attacks and the R2 Trigger for heavy attacks, and L1 and L2 being used for range weapons, shield and some abilities and circle for the dodge. It’s pretty simple for the most part and function fine, though it doesn’t always feel like it flows well. The best combat in games takes you away from the idea that you’re pushing buttons and makes the combat feel like an extension of yourself, and Kena doesn’t pull that off. The shield for example doesn’t work too well in my opinion, even if you upgrade it so I resorted to dodging more times than not- though weirdly for me I found using the bow and arrow (once you unlocked it), to be the most satisfying and accurate weapon. For example, I unlocked the Rot hammer ability which lets you spend Rot points you build up in combat through successful attacks but I was in so many boss fights where the camera would point at the boss but not act as a pointer for Kena’s attack, so I wasted my point with a big miss. The Rot arrow for example was way better since it gave time for a more accurate aim. The Rot points also don’t work too well if they build up with successive hits, but I personally would’ve preferred that they slowly build up as it would’ve allowed me to play the game bit more safely when I was on low health. Now that is available in easy difficulty, but that comes with its own can of worms for later. Plus, I feel like this is a game where you don’t unlock abilities frequently enough. I was a good couple of hours into the game before I got the bow and arrow and even when I was in the last section of the game, I was unlocking new abilities which seemed pointless at the time. All these abilities were really good and improved combat over time, but I would’ve liked them sooner to experiment with. Combat is fine in the game, but it could’ve been better, I will say the further I got in, the better it got, with one exception I’ll go back to later. There are upgrades you get by earning Karma points, through successful combat and small tasks to improve the land, but it’s not the most in depth skill tree to build on with only 12 upgrades, and trust me you won’t be grinding for all of them. Weirdly the bombs were the upgrade I liked the most since they could turn the tide of combat in several instances
- Difficulty transitions: I’m glad this game has multiple difficulties for most part. There’s an easy mode labelled Story mode, followed by standard and hard difficulties with master difficulty unlocking after you beat the story once. Now, I’m glad the easy difficulty is there because the game has several difficulty spikes especially around bosses and mini bosses which annoyed me, and occasionally I was swapping too easily for some fights that I was having trouble with. The problem is that unlike easy modes in games like Xenoblade Chronicles (which still offer some challenge whilst also giving players more of an ability to cope with tougher moments), Kena has an easy mode with really dumb AI. There were several moments they would just stop and wait for me to attack them or miss me by miles and it made this mode not fun since unlike other easy modes it really was a win button. To quote from Backlog banter’s YouTube channel, I think there needed to be more of a middle ground with the difficulty settings and spikes.
- World design: Kena’s world looks great with a central village hub to connect the 3 areas you travel to and serval fast travel points to travel between them. I really enjoyed exploring the world but in my opinion while I don’t mind linear games, Kena gives the impression of a big open world, only for it to be way more confined than I was expecting. There’s a lot more invisible walls than I would like and most of the environments just feel like hallways than big open areas though obviously there’s some collectables to find and were certainly not talking Final Fantasy 13 bad in terms of hallway like design. This feels a bit more like a throwback to the PS2/GameCube era and while there’s nothing wrong with that and I am a great fan of that era, the game occasionally gives off a vibe it’s trying to be a bit more and didn’t advertise it well. I like the world as a whole I just don’t think collectables were enough of an incentive to revisit areas since I didn’t get much for it other than hats for the rot which admittedly were cute.
- Story: Kena story opens up with the idea of it being a character driven story and to a certain extent it is. The story is very episodic with little connection between the individual stories. Each area centres around a different corrupted villager and journey they went through to get where they are. Each story is fine, but they also alluded to some character development with Kena, that only gets slightly touched upon. She feels like an interesting character on paper but less so in execution. The story is fine and there were some good moments where I felt gutted for characters but it’s not a story that’ll stick with me as much as many other games like it.
- Cutscenes to gameplay transition: This isn’t a big problem but the cutscenes run at 30 fps so it was jarring when you move to 60 fps for gameplay. It means many scenes don’t flow as well together when they really need to.
- Healing system: This was my biggest problem with the game; I can’t stand how healing works. Many games limit the amount of times you can heal in battle but Kena does it in a terrible way. In order to heal, you have to spend a Rot point and activate a plant in the area to get the heal. Not only is this a limit to how much you can heal, it’s also not to quick and means dying mid-heal is very possible, but it also limits where you can heal as well which is really stupid. There was occasions I had to go from one side of an area to another just to heal, and it severely limited what I could do in combat. I don’t understand why I didn’t just have limited heals that I could activate at any time similar to Ender Lillies that would’ve been a much better solution
- A little shorter than I expected: Kena is a bit too short for my liking it really feels like just as the game is really getting going, we’re in the final act. I think the game maybe could’ve used one more area to boost the running time coming in at around 10 hours. I feel like a more interesting story could’ve been told with just one more segment but as it stands it’s a game that feels over too soon.
Kena Bridge of Spirts is a good game that I enjoyed playing but there’s far too many niggles for me to say it’s great. It has great graphics that bring to life a beautiful world and soundtrack that’s great and all of it is especially good for first time creators but is bogged down by a combat system that works fine but needed a bit more time to work out the kinks. There are other issues like the camera being a bit of a bother, and the terrible healing system but as it stands, it’s a fine short experience that you will probably get something out of but won’t be something you’ll come back to even with an easy mode that is essentially a ‘win’ button.
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