Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Available on: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4 and PC (exclusive to the Epic Games Store)

Developer: Ember Lab | Publisher: Ember Lab

Release: Sept. 21, 2021

The most arresting video game environments of recent memory are those that evoke the serenity of the natural world. To be sure, that world is represented varyingly from game to game. But mostly, impressions of solitude abound, as in “Death Stranding” with its lonely treks across mountains, grassland, and forested slopes. The Senpou Temple of “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” is likewise secluded — and eerily so. One discerns the sonorous chants of the temple’s corrupted monks and glimpses, beyond the closely gathered trees, their pillared monastery. And in the higher regions of “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” where Link flits about the pines, imminent dangers pale before the atmosphere that surrounds. At such times the call of battle can feel oddly remote, so spellbinding are those virtual woods.

“Kena: Bridge of Spirits,” a fantasy action-adventure game from the developer Ember Lab, aspires to a similar magic, though its style is more “Zelda” than “Sekiro,” and more Disney than “Death Stranding.” Its difficulty can be punishing, however, and it tells its own tale of the serenities — and the horrors — of nature. A plague has visited death and famine upon the game’s world and has created a few villains in the process.

Kena, the protagonist, begins her adventure in the aftermath of that tragedy. A good-hearted spirit guide, she is grieving her late father and hopes to find solace at the hallowed Mountain Shrine.

The staff Kena wields once belonged to her father. Like her pendant necklace and the scars on her hands, it is luminous with the blue energy of the Mountain Shrine. The land had been nourished by that same energy, but something changed. “Like all things, the Mountain Shrine follows a natural cycle,” explains one character.

Before Kena can approach the mountain, she must travel through forests, fields and spiritual portals. Her principal task is to battle three corrupted spirits who are resisting the pull of the spirit realm. In the lead-up to each battle, Kena collects relics that figured importantly in the mortal lives of these spirits. She learns of the woes that have moored them to the world. And in the wake of each battle, when the spirits are free of the mysterious corruption that had transformed their minds and bodies, Kena sympathetically acknowledges their grief or regret. She speaks to them in placating tones and inspires them to move on at last.

The narrative also gestures toward the idea that nature — a source of power and caprice — requires our knowledgeable stewardship and patient reverence. But in its rush to pathos, the storytelling can register as hollow and labored. And the dialogue too often reiterates the themes in plainly declarative ways.

Not all the characters communicate alike, however. The “Rot,” tiny blobs that accompany Kena, prefer trilling and doe-eyed expressions. These fruit-devouring critters are legion, and Kena collects them as her adventure progresses. One of them emerges out of a pumpkin; many more lurk beneath rocks and among other hiding spots. As this army grows, so too do the Rot-enhanced abilities at Kena’s disposal. In certain contexts, the Rot can even morph into a controllable form: a serpentine beast that restores crops as easily as it dispatches monsters and poisonous outgrowths.

Kena also employs a blue force field that has multiple applications. It serves as an encircling shield, for instance, and can radiate outward to open imposing gates. It can also be used in concert with the Rot to eradicate corrupted vegetation, which is one of the ways the player accrues “Karma,” the currency used to purchase new attacks and upgrades. This pulsing force field also hastens the growth of the fruit that’s found on various bushes. Karma likewise increases when the Rot eat this fruit, bringing you one step closer toward abilities like the “Rot Hammer,” which finds Kena leaping up while the Rot swirl around her staff, adding to its power before it comes crashing down upon some hapless foe.

The game is most compelling in its early forest sections. “Kena’s” compact yet open world is replete with lovely details: the remains of ancient stonework, paths surrounded by thickets and purple flowers, and shafts of light that fall through the canopies. Unfortunately, the game is often roused from this tranquility by some blunt dialogue about “the will of nature,” for example, or “the ancient trees.” But the story is occasionally told with verve. In a playable cutscene of sorts that’s set during a thunderstorm, the player guides Kena past the towering redwoods of a haunted forest. The game’s cartoonish art style is paired with over-the-top lighting: soft blues glow between the trees and beams of white flash mightily when the thunder sounds. The ensuing spectacle is impressive. At a glance, it seems to combine the respective stylings of Pixar and Janusz Kamiński.

Players will also steer Kena across paths and stones, putter about caverns, and solve many straightforward puzzles. You’ll pause before cliff-side vistas that rival those of bigger-budget games like “Uncharted 4.” All of this contributes to Ember Lab’s glossily animated vision of the natural world.

In the game’s second half, however, Kena’s adventure increasingly features dilapidated shacks and muddy fields. This section is awkwardly littered with challenges — a space more enervating than inspiring. But the moody caverns there maintain one’s interest, as do Kena’s nifty abilities. Boulders briefly levitate in response to her sticky bombs, and her arrows magnetize to lotus flowers to lift her toward higher ground.

In many other games, pots and barrels are but doomed piñatas awaiting the strike of sword or fist. But here, containers yield their contents whenever Kena stands before them and gently raps her staff upon the ground. Other items are hefted up by the Rot and handled with care. “Can you move that?” Kena kindly queries when the player activates the Rot icon that accompanies interactive objects. She encounters overturned animal statues; the Rot help them back on their feet. The game therefore directs its solicitude not just toward the natural world but also scattered objects and heirlooms, some of which Kena returns to the homes of their deceased owners. These bits of quiet ceremony are a more elegant expression of theme than the talkative cutscenes.

But solicitude has its limits. Kena rains blows upon scores of expressive adversaries, whose ranks include owlish creatures with incongruously batlike wings, spindly monstrosities that hastily clamber about the trees, and bird-faced gremlins who wield axes and totter forward like pint-sized spins on Jack Torrance. Toss a sticky bomb at an owl, and the weight brings it down in a flutter of panic. Toss another at a mage and he furiously responds, hurtling the bomb right back at Kena. Such liveliness enhances the already invigorating flow of battle.

The game thrums along well enough during most battles, including the grandiose and unexpectedly arduous final boss fight — a six-stage ordeal in which failure typically sends the player back to stage one. The frame rate is adequate but dips noticeably at times. Kena’s character model also froze on two occasions. Earlier save files were the only recourse. Other encountered issues include the volume of the dialogue shifting erratically, and Kena getting stuck in the first-person view of a spiritual mask. The game can run unimpeded by glitches for long stretches, but more fine-tuning is clearly needed. (I played on the PlayStation 4 Pro with the medium difficulty [“Spirit Guide”] selected; a recent patch promised performance improvements for the PS4.)

“Kena” is Ember Lab’s debut game, but they have experience with artistically adapting the styles and sensibilities of other properties. They have animated commercials for corporations, for example, and created a popular tribute to “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.” For better or worse, their knack for adaptation is also evident in “Kena’s” gameplay, which brings to mind “Pikmin,” “Horizon: Zero Dawn” and the recent “God of War,” among other games. On those merits, “Kena” isn’t especially inventive, but the game is an entertaining hodgepodge of tried-and-true ideas. A sense of deja vu certainly emerges. But one scarcely notices it during the brisk battles or amid the splendors and astonishments of the enveloping forests.

M.D. Rodrigues is a freelance writer based in Canada. He has also written for the Hedgehog Review, the Los Angeles Times and the Economist’s Prospero blog, among other outlets.

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