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Review: Beautiful and Poignant Kena: Bridge of Spirits Surprises With Tight Combat

Screenshot: Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Okay, so it took me a bit longer to get through Kena: Bridge of Spirits than I anticipated. I was surprised. Its first few hours were a breeze, and gave the impression of a lovely game with tight but easy combat. And then, after the first “section” I found my easy breezy experience replaced with a game that actually has some tough encounters. After juggling Kena with other projects, I finally sat down to power through a boss that was giving me difficulty, and finish what ended up being a beautiful game. But despite how much I enjoyed it, it isn’t perfect.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a third person action adventure game with some light role-playing game elements. In it, you play as the titular Kena, on a journey to a mountain shrine, on a mission to investigate what happened to the village that surrounded it.  Kena carries a magical staff adorned with crystal that helps channel her energy into other crystals, which is used as a way to open doors and as a type of puzzle mechanic. Along the way Kena befriends Rot, little cute creatures that feed on the dead things of the forest to enact beneficial change. They sound gross, but they’re almost like Breath of the Wild’s Koroks, hiding in places just waiting to be found. These Rot are an integral part of gameplay, and can even help in combat, or work as Pikmin-like creatures that can move objects for you.

Screenshot: Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Combat in Kena: Bridge of Spirits is surprisingly fun, and challenging. I hesitate to describe it as soulslike, but it does have some tinges of that: attacks can be blocked and parried, enemies can deal large amounts of damage, dodging can be a means to avoid damage, etc.  There isn’t a stamina gauge restricting attacking and dodging, however, and enemies can be stunned with Rot or by using Kena’s bow to shoot weak points. Kena’s shield is a bubble forcefield she projects around herself, and later can beee turned into a dash which stuns enemies, and enables passage through certain barriers, etc.

While Kena: Bridge of Spirits appears to take place in an open world, it’s not completely open. Each main part of the game opens up new sections of the map, with each of these sections a mostly linear path from entrance to task. Kena is very much a grab-you-by-the-neck-and-guide-you-along type experience. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but it teases a great open world experience, which it just doesn’t really have. Invisible walls are abundant, there are ledges you can’t land on inexplicably, and falls that kill you despite being able to survive. These are just some ways Kena corrals you in. There are reasons to explore each area though, since there are hidden Rot to uncover, meditation places to increase Kena’s health, and currency to find that can be spent on skill points or decking out the Rot with fun hats.

Screenshot: Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Kena has a few basic abilities, but it feels like a pretty robust skillset. She can eventually dash, throw bombs, shoot arrows, and wind up heavy attacks. You can spend currency to augment these abilities, and you even have the option to add Rot to your attacks, giving them extra power.

While there is a fair amount of puzzle solving and exploration, I spent most of my time in Kena in combat. There are an interesting array of creatures to fight, and while most of them are visually similar, they have different behaviors. I appreciate the variety of enemies, and even bosses, in Kena, but at the same time everything had a feeling of sameness. Some of that is by design and visual, but sometimes even boss attacks would seem same-y between encounters. Every boss seemed to have a long range lunge or stab attack. There is also a tendency to add extra enemies into boss fights, something  I think took away from the otherwise great boss encounters.

Screenshot: Kena: Bridge of Spirits

While there is some fun combat in Kena: Bridge of Spirits, there are also some clever puzzles. The puzzles are a little unconventional,  but they’re intuitive and clever. Despite feeling like they were never overly tough, I still had a few “aha!” moments when solving them. I wish Kena’s puzzles would have kept up, however—once I got into the third act, it felt like there were far fewer puzzles and much more combat.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a gorgeous game, and it has an almost Pixar-like animation quality at times. Story-wise, I found Kena’s narrative and themes to be a little well-trod.  I appreciate the poignancy and even the way the story is told, but even its amazing quality can’t push it above its overuse of genre tropes. Kena’s story is definitely quality, however, and told well enough—but there were no surprises along the way.

Screenshot: Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is easily one of my favorite games of the year. It’s gorgeous, it has a well told emotional story, and it has surprisingly tight combat mechanics. I wish its open world wasn’t as restrictive, however. And while there are some great boss fights, I think the inclusion of extra enemies in almost every one hinders what would otherwise be amazing encounters. I’m glad I finally got around to finishing Kena: Bridge of Spirits—it was worth the journey.

 

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is available now for PlayStation 4 and 5 and for PC on the Epic Games Store.

 

 

 

 

An Epic Games Store key was provided to us for this review.

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