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Lurking amid all the blowout announcements that Sony made when it first showed off its next batch of PlayStation games last year was a beautiful little adventure game that no one had ever heard of. Hailing from tiny VFX studio Ember Lab, Kena: Bridge of Spirits met the world back then as a never-before-seen indie game. But thanks to amazing visuals and a mystical forest setting that beckoned old-school, Zelda-like adventure, it moved to the top of fans’ wish lists almost as soon as that first trailer had played.
Fast forward to today, as Kena finally finds its way into players’ hands as a console-exclusive new release for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 (as well as PC, via the Epic Games Store). Early reviewers are falling all over themselves praising Ember Lab’s first video game outing — and after spending some pre-release time hands-on with Kena ourselves, we know why.
It’s tough to describe how Kena is both similar and yet distinct from the classic games that inspired it (think The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Okami). But the key thread that runs directly from the greats of the N64 and PS2 era straight to Kena: Bridge of Spirits is that they’re all — how do we say this? — downright delightful.
No one’s going to mistake Kena for its old-school gaming inspiration — in part because its cinematic moments look more like a present-day playable story from DreamWorks or Pixar than a blocky, 64-bit game from 1996. But behind the sparkling blue visual effects that light up every magic arrow, and beyond the cute bright eyes of each newly-discovered Rot (the name for Kena’s ever-growing band of pint-sized forest followers), there’s an underlying, Zelda-like focus on reshaping your environment by first figuring it out…and delving deep into your magic tool kit to change it for the better.
Kena drops you straight into its setting with little early explanation, providing context cues along the way as you intrepidly take your first adventurous steps. From the outset, it's clear that this is an earnest, wide-eyed sort of game, one that channels the visual wonders of Kena's surroundings (which conceal, by the way, a deceptively dark story) by making you, the player, a proxy for everything she sees.
In time, you discover that Kena is a Spirit Guide, and it’s her job to cleanse a strange, benighted village and its forest surroundings of the blight that infects it from the restless and unsettled spirits of the dead. For much of the time you spend running through its lush and enchanted world, there’s little heads-up display visual clutter on the screen — just a widescreen view of the action, with context-appropriate cues showing up only when they’re needed.
Kena’s ultimate mission to bring peace to her troubled surroundings yields up environmental puzzles aplenty, all scattered at seemingly every turn in the game's diverse, mystical world. The furry black Rot creatures that follow Kena around may be cute, but they’re also endowed with a handful of super-useful Pikmin-like abilities, ready to tote blocks and boulders to where they’re needed most or swarm and distract an enemy while Kena wails away with her magical blue-tinged bow-staff.
There’s a rhythm to Kena’s Rot-assisted exploration: solve a puzzle, enter the area it unlocks, dispatch the enemies within, and then use your Spirit Guide powers to restore all the gloom back to its natural glory. At key points, you’ll encounter much bigger bosses — the kind that get their own health bar and can’t be beaten until you’ve figured out their weaknesses and paced yourself for a multi-stage fight. Best of all, each boss is distinct from the next and inventively puts Kena’s arsenal of abilities to the test in clever and (extremely) challenging ways.
Yep, delightfulness and charm aren’t Kena’s only callouts to the video game past: In classic Zelda fashion, the bosses are downright hard — not Dark Souls hard, mind you, but tough nonetheless, in that old-school way that leaves it up to you to uncover each baddie’s well-concealed secret. It’s a nifty balance between the point-of-no-return, locked-in-a-room boss battles of retro Zelda games and the more precise action finesse of recent 2D games like Hollow Knight and Ori and the Will of the Wisps. While we’re nowhere close to reaching the end, we’ve already fallen nearly a dozen times to Kena’s creative boss fights — and loved every painful second of it.
There’s a reason we keep bringing up the Zelda franchise as a touchstone for how it feels to experience Kena. Ember Lab got its first major attention outside the inner circles of the entertainment industry a few years back when it wowed Zelda fans with Majora’s Mask — Terrible Fate, a cinematic short inspired by Nintendo’s triumphant sequel to Ocarina of Time. “…[O]ne wonders if this is an unsolicited audition for a professional project,” The Verge presciently observed at the time.
Five years later, that project is here — only in video game form. Kena: Bridge of Spirits doesn’t promise a campaign that’s 40 (or more) hours long like its spiritual ancestors, but it is a meaty adventure, a first franchise outing that you can’t blow through in a single sitting. Don’t listen to reports that suggest easily beating the game in under 10 hours: We’ve spent close to that already. Judging from the big sections of unexplored space on our game map, we've still got plenty left to do.
More than all that, it’s a vast and, yes, delightful trip through a world that feels like a missing wayback PlayStation companion to sassier early Sony action-adventure titles like Ratchet & Clank and Jak and Daxter. Its cutscenes look like Pixar, its gameplay looks like Studio Ghibli, and its set-piece battles mix the magic of old-school boss standoffs with the controlled-chaos sophistication of more recent action games. Better still, it introduces us to a likable new hero — and indeed an entire lore-verse — that, even on launch day, are already just begging for a sequel.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is available now for PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, and PC via the Epic Games Store.