Atmosphere can feel almost superfluous in video games at the moment. Despite its very obvious importance, there’s sometimes an assumption that if the more mechanical parts of a game serve their purpose - and do so reliably - then elements like immersion, environment and art style are merely contributors to a solid product. But my view is to the contrary; I think it’s usually those elements that turn a game into a phenomenon. This is very clearly proven by Kena: Bridge Of Spirits.
The first game by animation studio Ember Lab, Kena: Bridge Of Spirits is an action-adventure set in a mystical village troubled by spirits with unfinished business. These souls, traumatized by events in their lives, are now unable to pass on. Kena, a spirit guide, is responsible for helping them find their way to the afterlife, while on her own journey to a sacred mountain shrine. During her travels, Kena encounters an elusive species called the Rot - spirits reminiscent of the soot sprites in Spirited Away - who help her clear the 'corruption' that's spreading throughout their forest home.
One of the most striking elements, made abundantly clear on starting the game, is Kena's art direction. Kena: Bridge Of Spirits has a beautiful style that's truly wondrous, something that's especially important for a game designed for exploration. Everything, from the environment to the character designs, is unique and downright endearing. More than that, everything feels exactly how it should. The forest is peaceful and tranquil, whereas the areas of dark 'corruption' that litter the landscape feel harsh and uninviting.
This is only bolstered by the music, which complements the vast open world with a fantastic mixture of awesome orchestral tracks and percussion instruments. It knows what it needs to be at all times, and doesn’t take a step too far or short. It’s during the downtime between combat sequences that the music truly comes out to shine, and you feel a real rapport with Kena as her head turns left to right, surveying the luscious green hills in awe as the music further highlights their beauty.
The combat (against spirits that the corruption has twisted into giant monsters) fits with the general vibe the game gives off. Your basic moves consist of the typical light and heavy attacks, dodges, and parries that you would expect in any third-person action-adventure. Moves can be upgraded, and can also be used together to create some great attack combinations, but it’s the simplicity that really makes combat satisfying. Kena: Bridge Of Spirits is not trying to be the next great hack n' slash; rather, Ember Lab have opted to create a combat system that is easy to learn and great fun once you've mastered it.
Other parts of the game keep this pleasant-but-simple formula, too. The open world is filled to the brim with collectables, some of which are actually useful. The most prominent are the different Rot to be found, and which will contribute to your overall level. Chests can also contain a number of items including hats for your Rot friends - which aren't useful, but do add even more to the mountains of character this game already has.
Despite this, there are sections where things feel a little too simplistic - or at least, devoid of explanation. Especially during the opening, a section that’s vital to get right so players know what they’re doing, there are details that are left out in an attempt to create suspense. What actually happens is that you can become confused and unsure of how to progress. It’s an issue that doesn’t happen often, but does happen, and it's frustrating whenever it does.
But more importantly, Kena: Bridge of Spirits does something remarkable in that it has a cutesy, plushie-like companion that is not only cute for the sake of being cute but is also useful. The Rot are great companions that help you in virtually every element of the game. Your little pals help to solve puzzles (they can move objects or accomplish other simple tasks), or be called in for special attacks in combat, and plenty of other opportunities arise for the cute critters to help you on your journey, as you clear the corruption from the forest together.
"Kena: Bridge Of Spirits feels endearing, in a way that creates an intimate connection between the player and the game."
Kena herself is a great protagonist, and she perfectly encompasses everything you would expect from an action-adventure hero, while also showing a decency that makes her an incredibly likeable character. She puts you in a frame of mind that both reflects and contributes to the joyous feeling this game has. A key point is the way she politely asks her companions to do jobs for her, humanising them and herself at the same time in a kind of a symbiotic loop. It really makes you feel immersed in a game if your companions feel like friends, rather than code carrying out instructions.
The level design also adds to that feeling. Areas are littered with helpful environmental tips to make it easier for players to know where they can or cannot go. Since a lot about Kena: Bridge Of Spirits is simple, it makes teaching through play significantly easier. Whether its wandering spirits there to guide you, or the now-customary swaths of white paint suggesting the best place to climb, it all helps.
The little touches are what bring the game together, from the way Kena reacts to the unforgiving corruption with cowers and coughs when she breathes its foul air, to the way she excitedly taps her staff when she finds a collectable. It’s clear that a lot of care was put into making Kena: Bridge Of Spirits feel endearing, in a way that creates an intimate connection between the player and the game.
If there's anything I want you to know about Kena: Bridge Of Spirits, it's that its simplicity is still beautifully expressive. In particular, Kena has a truly cinematic style, with some breathtaking cutscenes, and it deploys them with real expertise. Not only is Kena aware of what it does well, it does those things very well indeed. And sure, the combat isn’t in-depth or complex, but it’s not trying to be. Kena: Bridge Of Spirits is a game about atmosphere, and it’s a breath of fresh air.