Occasionally a video game comes along that solidifies and cements our personal reasons on why we play video games. Sometimes it’s a triple A blockbuster with big budget production values and sometimes It’s a simple indie darling with a small team of 20 or less that pour so much heart and soul into their product that were you to cut the disc it would bleed those same ingredients. Kena: Bridge of Spirits fits somewhere in between, coming to us from Ember Lab in their freshmen debut as a game studio. Ember Lab is no stranger to the notions of heart, soul and work ethos that go into creating art, previously having created the popular Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask fan film, “Terrible Fate.” It is clear they have an artistic eye for the visual medium in movies, but could that translate into a gaming effort? The answer is a triumphant and resounding, “Yes.”
Kena: Bridge of Spirits stars the titular Kena on a quest to heal a mysterious village she comes across and utilize her magical abilities to help the deceased move on from the physical world to the spirit world. The game has a main hub which starts as the village, struck by a tragedy hundreds of years prior to the start of the game. As you progress, the village slowly returns to life with lush greenery and ambient hints of the return of nature. Along the way, Kena will meet a wonderful cast of characters from wise masters who train her, to young children who want you to help their troubled brother who happens to be one of those spirits you need to aid. Life, death, loss, letting go of the past and dealing with trauma both emotional and physical are among many of the central themes the game covers, and even Kena herself is subject to these lessons as she is beset with a scar that runs from her hand to her shoulder, a painful reminder from a traumatic experience involving her father that gets explored within the game in one of the most powerful segments I have ever played through. I only wish Kena’s background was explored more as we spend the most time with her in playing the game. The narrative is more content to present the situation of the lost spirits in the game and how she assists in helping them move on.
Kena isn’t alone on this journey thankfully, as she is joined by small woodland spirit creatures known as the Rot. Small, cute and coming in a variety of shapes and sizes, the Rot employ a Pikmin-esque mechanic to the game that is creative. They can assist in completing tasks such as moving objects, taking different shapes and even distracting enemies during combat. Kena herself is armed with a staff and has light and heavy attacks, and during the game obtains upgrades such as one that changes the staff so it can also act like a bow and arrow. She also has a pulse ability that acts as a shield and can also provide clues on where to go and can even activate certain objects. The game does a great job of balancing puzzle solving, exploration and combat and is so cleverly paced I was never at any time bored with the tasks I had to complete in the game. A lot of this is due to the whimsical nature of the Rot. The Rot are a main draw and almost steal the show with their varied animations, cute sound effects and expressive eyes and antics. Seeing them retrieve items for you and celebrate when you take it is always a joy to behold, and you care for their existence when the cower behind you for protection during the game’s fights, only being able to assist you once you build up their courage enough through dealing damage.
Artistically and graphically is also an area where this game shines. Ember Lab set out to create a visual tour de force and delivered a majestical masterpiece with just a team of 15 people. The lush greenery with areas full of life and even the dark and dreary parts of the land of the dead all show through with great attention to detail. Character animations are surprisingly fluid, even with Kena on screen, a bunch of enemies and the Rot all running around. I was continuously impressed by how well this game held up with everything going on at once. The animation especially shines through in the game’s cinematics which also utilize the in-game engine. The team is obviously no stranger to digital animation, and it shows through in every area of the game. A simple raised eyebrow or a sly smirk do so much to convey characterization and story and Ember Lab feeds this to us on a giant shovel shoved down our throats.
All the visual and narrative candy is backed by an equally wonderful musical score. The game is composed by Jason Gallaty who is also known as the musical artist and video game cover composer Theophany on Youtube. The music takes great care to mix in Balinese culture in its themes and even features Gamelan Cudamani’s lead singer Emiko Saraswati Susilo (who also voices Kena). Susilo reportedly was initially hesitant to feature traditional gamelan music in a video game, but after meeting the team and resonating with the game’s themes she agreed to the collaboration. The result is music that instills emotions when listened to on its own, and when played during sequences in the game evokes powerful emotions. Whether it was gameplay or a story part, Kena’s soundtrack is among the best works of art I’ve personally ever listened to, bridging the gap between film score and video game soundtrack. It’s up there with the Final Fantasy and Castlevania soundtracks in terms of memorability, emotion and feeling.
It’s a testament to the Ember Lab studio that Kena is as great as it is, especially with it being their first video game. Far too often as gamers we are content to play through lesser experiences from the standard triple A studio, and then occasionally we get a treasure like Kena: Bridge of Spirits which showcases that with time, care and smart effort even a smaller studio can deliver an experience on par with something like a Legend of Zelda or God of War. I believe the last time I came across a game of this caliber from a similar source was with Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Much like Hellblade, Kena: Bridge of Spirits proves yet again that a sense of direction, execution and faith in the project you are creating can yield a fantastic effort. Kena most certainly doesn’t break any new ground in the action-adventure genre, but by cleverly mixing a semi-open world experience with the style and grace of a next-gen mascot platformer and incorporating bits and pieces of the best parts of other games, Ember Lab with Kena: Bridge of Spirits reveals their chops as a new video game developer to pay attention to. Sony needs to keep this studio in their pocket, as Kena is directly their current modus operandi and a studio that can make something this good with the size of the team they had is so ridiculously impressive that I won’t be surprised if we eventually hear that Ember Lab gets acquired by the big S.
There was a time where we all watched the cinematics in games like Final Fantasy and the first thought in our minds was that we couldn’t wait until our video games looked that good. Ember Lab firmly cements that exact flagpole in the industry with their freshman effort, effectively blurring the line between indie developer and triple A studio. It is so rare that a new studio gets so much right on their first outing, but Ember Lab delivered and then some. Kena: Bridge of Spirits will be among those Game of the Year whispers from many an outlet and rightfully so (admittedly it is already front runner for my personal Game of the Year alongside Psychonauts 2). Ember Lab have not only crafted unto us a playable Pixar movie in the greatest sense of the accolade, but one of the best video game experiences to release in 2021.