PlayStation-exclusive Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a game that’s been highly anticipated, thanks in large part to its Pixar-like graphics and beautiful environments. And on that front, Ember Lab—an indie developer that started out as an animation company—delivers in style.
Gamers play as Kena, a young woman who has picked up her father’s magic staff to become a Spirit Guide. She aids errant spirits who have found themselves trapped in this world because of past regrets, guilt or some lingering, unfinished business. If they stay here long enough, they usually become violent manifestations. And in those cases, Kena must give them a good whacking and physically force them to resolve their issues and move on to the next life.
There is, however, something else going as of late. The beautiful world Kena lives in is infected with a spreading corruption and slowly dying. It’s something much more problematic than a lost spirit, something huge and corrosive. And the only way to stem that raging, destructive tide—one that’s caused famine and death in the human quarters—is for Kena to battle her way past forest obstacles and enemies and forge a trail to a magical Mountain Shrine, the source of spiritual power.
Kena also befriends little furball wisp creatures called Rot that she encounters along her journeys. And much like the tiny creatures in the Pikmin games, these grouped Rots can be used as helpers who clear away corruption, rebuild fallen structures, carry misplaced objects and even aid Kena in her battles with enemies.
The goal of the game involves several tasks: solving environmental puzzles; navigating the forest realm through climbing and platforming; taking on quests and collecting necessary relics; and giving battle to increasingly more powerful enemies in the form of spiritually animated rocks and plants.
Kena attacks, defends, jumps and dodges while slamming foes with her staff or blasting them with arrows and energy bombs. In turn the enemies fight back with staffs, hammers, fireballs and the like.
This game is indeed beautiful to look at (especially on the PS5), and it’s accompanied with gorgeous underscores in many areas. In addition, Kena and her little Rot buddies are cute and endearing.
The game’s story also promotes an ongoing theme of forgiveness. Each lost spirit seems reluctant to leave the living world, due to a sense of guilt or responsibility. And it’s only when they come to their senses and find some form of forgiveness and peace (sometimes revealed in a detailed short movie) that they can move on.
Even Kena works from a sense of duty, something instilled in her by her loving father.
Though no specific religion is denoted here, Kena’s whole world is immersed in a nebulous, shifting spirituality that feels much like an Eastern belief system.
This realm is filled with ghostly figures, unexplained spiritual entities, meditation, spirit masks and sometimes dark magic. For instance, all of the spirts wear wooden masks. An introductory page tells us that “wooden masks are carved to honor the dead.” We go on to read that when “placed in sacred shrines, these masks return to dust, symbolizing the spirit’s peaceful journey into the next life.”
Two women are depicted as a loving and dedicated same-sex couple who intimately embrace and touch foreheads.
There’s quite a bit of battling in the game mix. And the action can get fairly frenetic at times as multiple smaller enemies rush in while a larger foe attacks with powerful blows or explosive fire blasts. But the fights are never bloody.
Though Kena: Bridge of Spirits never feels all that fresh or inventive from a gaming perspective, it is certainly very playable and a treat for the senses.
The largest drawbacks, then, will be the strange spiritual aspects of the game. Parents might not want young gamers diving in without a bit of spiritual guidance of their own. And that’s equally true when it comes to the game’s depiction of a same-gender relationship.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.