While Microsoft and Nintendo have dominated the gaming news cycle thanks to strong E3 screenings, PlayStation owners still have a lot to look forward to in 2021. Deathloop ready to be PS5’s next killer app, Forbidden Horizon in the West looks gorgeous, and Solar ash looks like an indie classic in the making. But the biggest game to watch this summer might just be Kena: Bridge of Spirits.
The indie title, the first game from Ember Lab, is a colorful action-adventure that combines bizarre creatures and surprisingly challenging combat. Sony paid a lot of attention to the game during its recent State of Play events, and it’s easy to see why entering its beautiful world.
I recently practiced the game as part of this year’s Tribeca Festival. Based on an hour long demo, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a promising experience that combines the kind of storytelling one would expect from an animated movie with some surprisingly fun gameplay mechanics.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits It’s a pretty standard action adventure game. The player controls Kena, a young guiding spirit who helps the dead transition to the afterlife. It’s a third-person game that involves solving environmental puzzles, traversing lush locations, and battling enemies with a magical staff.
The piece of music I had to play threw me into the pile of furniture. Kena is deep in a colorful jungle-like area. She finds a mask that points her in the direction of a mountain. From there, I trotted around the environment, looking for a path while stumbling across little secrets along the way.
The battle started out simple but quickly started to get more complicated by the hour. At first, my toolkit was pretty basic. I can hit enemies with a light or heavy hit, perform a dodge move, and protect with a magical aura. It’s also surprisingly difficult, which I didn’t expect given the game’s subtle art style. I was completely destroyed in the first battle against the basic enemies. Defending and dodging are not optional here.
At one point, I leveled up by gathering enough secrets in the world, unlocking additional skills. That’s when the real battle begins to unfold. I’ve added a rotation attack to my arsenal and it looks like there are more options as the game goes deeper.
The fighting really starts to click when Kena gets a bow, adding ranged attacks to her arsenal. By the time I encountered the big boss of the demo, I was shooting arrows at the enemy and then rushing in to be attacked by a few good staffers, no different from a big budget game like Horizon Zero Dawn. The smooth mix of ranged and close range combat gives Kena’s combat more depth than one might expect from a game of this scale.
While more action-adventure elements are expected for the genre (like the Uncharted-style climbing segments where Kena climbs cliffs), there’s a surprising mechanic that steals the show. Kena is aided by tiny creatures called Rot, like the soot in Spirited Away. They are tiny black creatures that follow Kena around and can be controlled in a variety of ways.
It’s correct, Kena: Bridge of Spirits there’s a whole system like Pikmin, and that’s an interesting thing.
What makes Rots work so well is that they have a purpose in both exploration and combat. While traveling around the world, the player encounters various objects that Rot can interact with. Squeeze square send them off to complete a quest, such as fixing a fox statue or recruiting another Rot. The leveling system seems to be based on how many Rots you’ve collected, so the game encourages players to explore and build their squad.
There are very few environmental puzzles to solve. At one point, my Rot picked up a large box. I commanded them to drop it next to a high cliff so I could climb up and reach the ledge. In another, they turn into a roaming tidal wave that I can control with my staff. I can use them to attack some thorny plants in the area, clearing a secret path for me.
Their role in the battles is even more intriguing. When a fight starts, Rot gets scared and runs away. The more enemies the player kills, the more courage they have to come back. When one meter is full, the player can hold R2 and then press square to launch Rot on the enemy. They will gather around it, causing a distraction allowing the player to get some free hits.
Rot has other uses as well. They can be launched to factories around the battlefield, helping to restore the player’s health. They will also need to be thrown into the enemy spawning flora to destroy them. Gauges need to be recharged each time a Rot is used, so the player must think carefully about how they are deployed in battle. Does it make more sense to put them on attack or save some mana in case the player finds his health low? That little decision-making class adds some wisdom to Kena’s more basic fighting fundamentals.
That element alone was enough to hold my interest throughout my demo. I get excited whenever I find a surprising new use for them. Kena herself may be the popular hero, but Rot is the real star of the show, and I’m excited to see what else my little friends can do.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits coming to PS4, PS5, and PC through the Epic Games Store on August 24.