Inverse Game Reviews

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is PlayStation's Zelda, but there's a catch

Inverse Score: 8/10

The Legend of Zelda is at the core of Kena: Bridge of Spirit’s DNA.

Developer Ember Lab gained prominence thanks to a fantastic 2016 The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask fan film called Terrible Fate. The animation studio has since transformed into a game developer and delivered Kena: Bridge of Spirits, a title with lavish cutscenes that builds upon the formula established by early 3D Zelda games like Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Twilight Princess.

But the PlayStation console exclusive never reaches the same highs as those games due to lackluster platforming and combat. Still, Kena: Bridge of Spirits features absolutely stunning visuals and a heartwarming narrative that surpasses any story that Nintendo’s series has ever told. PlayStation finally has its own The Legend of Zelda, and there’s plenty of room for this franchise to grow.

High Spirits

Kena: Bridge of Spirits explores themes like humanity’s relationship with the environment, the importance of family, and fear of moving on. It drops players right into the narrative like it’s a new episode of a long-running TV show, allowing players to jump right into the action.

Kena is a Spirit Guide who helps restless spirits pass on into the afterlife. She stumbles upon a now-abandoned village at the base of a mountain shrine and quickly learns that this once prosperous town suffered a terrible famine as the environment turned against them. Kena must help the spirits of the townsfolk pass on with her magical abilities and their Spirit Masks (a nod to the studio’s Majora’s Mask roots).

Kena has the help of the Rot, adorable little black creatures with mystical powers that will win over your heart as soon as you see them.

The story is poignant and heartfelt, especially early on, as Kena helps some young spirit twins reunite with their brother. The climax also features a genuinely surprising twist. The Legend of Zelda games often disappoint with their stories, so this is one of the areas where Kena: Bridge of Spirits outshines its inspiration. Ember Lab has created a rich world with loads to explore, and we hope to see more of it in the future.

These story scenes succeed thanks to the utterly fantastic animation. Ember Lab proved with Terrible Fate that it could deliver impeccable visuals. Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ pre-rendered cutscenes have the same polish you’d expect from Dreamworks or Illumination with gorgeous environments and detailed facial expressions.

The cutscenes in Kena: Bridge of Spirits feature a surprising amount of detail. Ember Lab

The in-engine graphics are also impressive, as Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ open world is vibrant, colorful, and full of detail. This is a rare case where the PS5’s high-resolution Fidelity Mode is preferable to the frame rate focused Performance Mode because that allows the game’s best aspect to shine. It’s an awe-inspiring feat for such a small team making its first game.

While it’s also available on PS4, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a must-play title for PS5 owners that want to experience truly next-gen visuals.

Spirited Away

Kena: Bridge of Spirits overachieves with its visuals and story, but the gameplay is underwhelming. As one would expect from a game inspired by The Legend of Zelda, players explore, occasionally solve puzzles, and occasionally battle enemies. It feels like it’s from the mid-2000s era of Legend of Zelda clones like Star Fox Adventures and Legend of Kay, though it’s more polished.

The environmental puzzles often find clever ways to utilize Kena’s abilities and the Rot. During the adventure, Kena learns to use a bow, a bomb that can make rocks float, and a dash move to get her through portals. You’ll combine these skills in many situations. For example, one late-game challenge has you dashing through portals to elevate rocks with bombs and make a path forward.

Many Rot follow Kena and all times, and they can be used in combat and solve environmental puzzles. Ember Lab

Kena can also control the Rot and get them to carry and move objects, though these Rot puzzles never get to the complicated levels of something like Pikmin. The world is exhilarating to explore because of these puzzles and the fact it’s so beautiful, though platforming is stiff because of an unsatisfying double jump and restrictive Uncharted-like climbing.

While the platforming never gets too complicated, The PS5’s helpful activity cards provide detailed video and text descriptions of each objective if you get stuck.

One place Kena: Bridge of Spirits isn’t afraid to get tough is with its combat. Along with her other abilities, Kena uses her staff for light and heavy attacks and to summon a shield to block and parry. For some demanding boss battles, precise timing is required to succeed. She can also use the Rot to stun enemies or strengthen some of her other attacks.

This system encourages players to be aggressive, which leads to frustration when enemies don’t telegraph attacks well or enemy animations make it tough to discern dodge timing. No fight in Kena: Bridge of Spirits is insurmountable, but some do overstay their welcome.

Combat is the low point of Kena: Bridge of Spirits. Ember Lab

Though the battles can get tedious, the pretty visuals and fantastic soundtrack help make up for it. Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ music has Balinese and Indonesian influences, incorporating unique percussion instruments to create an energy and atmosphere that will stick with you long after you beat the game.

Looking at the world of Kena: Bridge of Spirits is sometimes more enjoyable than actually playing it, but tight pacing keeps the experience lively. A regular playthrough shouldn’t take more than 10 hours, and the whole experience leaves you wanting more, despite a couple of gameplay shortcomings.

Ember Labs has established a solid foundation for a franchise that could eventually rival The Legend of Zelda. If future entries refine the combat and platforming, this could become one of the defining new series of this console generation.

8/10

Inverse reviewed Kena: Bridge of Spirits on PS5. It is also available now on PC and PS4.

INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: When it comes to video games, Inverse values a few qualities that other sites may not. For instance, we care about hours over money. Many new AAA games have similar costs, which is why we value the experience of playing more than price comparisons. We don’t value grinding and fetch quests as much as games that make the most out of every level. We also care about the in-game narrative more than most. If the world of a video game is rich enough to foster sociological theories about its government and character backstories, it’s a game we won’t be able to stop thinking about, no matter its price or popularity. We won’t punch down. We won’t evaluate an indie game in the same way we will evaluate a AAA game that’s produced by a team of thousands. We review games based on what’s available in our consoles at the time. And finally, we have very little tolerance for junk science. (Magic is always OK.)
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