It makes sense that Ember Lab, the developer of Kena: Bridge of Spirits, started out as an animation studio. Just looking at this gorgeous world and Pixar-esque character designs tells you that this is a team that has a ton of experience in making incredible digital works, including their Majora’s Mask fan film, Terrible Fate. While Bridge of Spirits' gameplay doesn’t quite match the extraordinarily high bar set by its visuals for a number of reasons, including some bland storytelling and shallow progression, this 3D open-world action-adventure is still nonetheless an impressive achievement thanks to its exciting and deceptively simple combat and an excellent balance of action, puzzle solving, and platforming.
Kena is a Spirit Guide who helps spirits who are unable to move on to the next life, whether because of lingering guilt or unfinished business. The story follows her as she makes her way through a beautiful but dying land in search of its sacred mountain shrine, guiding the troubled spirits she finds along the way. Not enough good things can be said about the character designs, facial expressions, and animation in Bridge of Spirits, which do an amazing job of making everyone you meet immediately endearing – especially Kena herself.
She’s so likable, in fact, that it actually makes it a bit of a bummer that we never really get to learn all that much about her. You get hints of her background and history, but never anything that lets you get to know her in the same way you get to know the spirits and other characters that she ends up interacting with. It’s a shame because she's the one we spend the most time with, and everything else about her is awesome and made me want to know more.
In many ways, Bridge of Spirits is a throwback to the classic 3D Zelda style of games of having a large overworld that’s split up into major zones, and then guiding you through them in a linear fashion. Each zone will then require you to collect X amount of Y item, fight a boss, and then snag an upgrade that lets you travel to and explore the next zone. It’s very simple and formulaic, but it works elegantly: each area is home to a corrupt spirit that Kena needs to save, and as you explore the region you meet other characters who were close to the spirit, learn about the history of how things went wrong for them, find their personal effects, watch flashbacks, and then everything culminates in a boss fight that ties a nice little bow on the story arc.
Combat, on the other hand, is absolutely nothing like Zelda’s. It’s fast-paced, deceptively simple, and surprisingly challenging on the normal difficulty level given its cutesy and colorful demeanor. You’ve got light attacks, heavy attacks, and the ability to use your staff as a bow for ranged attacks, and… that’s about it in terms of your primary offensive tools, from beginning to end. Combat options were so limited, in fact, that I actually was pretty let down in the early goings because most enemies could be killed with just one or two light attack combos, and I wasn’t given much reason to do anything else for a lot longer than I’d have liked in a game that only lasts about nine hours.
Some nuance is introduced in the form of your tiny and adorable Ghibli-esque sprites, unfittingly known as Rot. These little dudes aid you in battle by swarming an enemy and temporarily locking them down, giving you an opportunity to attack their weak points, or just focus on clearing out the surrounding enemies. The ability to command them is tied to an amusingly contextualized Courage Meter that builds up as you deal damage, emboldening them to put themselves in harm's way to help you out.
What really redeems Bridge of Spirits’ combat is that after a while it begins to introduce new enemy types that strongly encourage you to change up your tactics and explore some of the subtleties of its limited tools. Whether that’s making use of your bow’s time slowdown by jumping into the air and aiming at hard-to-hit weak points, using a parry against an attack that’s difficult to dodge, or using your Rot to immobilize a tough enemy so you can attack them from behind. There’s an impressive amount of enemy variety, and once they started showing up to the party I felt like I was constantly being challenged by new and interesting scenarios. That’s exactly how it should be in a game like this.
You also have to manage your resources very carefully in battle once the difficulty starts to ramp up significantly later on in the campaign. Not only can you use Courage to lockdown enemies with the Rot, but you also need to use it to heal by cleansing specific areas in a fight. There’s rarely more than two of these healing spots in any given scrap were, which makes every bit of damage you take incredibly significant, and often you have to make the call of whether you want to use your courage to be able to survive another hit, or use it to cash in a bunch of damage on an immobile enemy or boss.
That said, it would have been nice to have a little more to do in a fight. Bridge of Spirts’ progression system doesn’t provide very many enticing options to evolve your fighting style, and made me feel pigeonholed in my approach to combat – especially because there’s one melee weapon, and that weapon never really got much better or different as I continued to play. You can upgrade your moves, but the impact of those upgrades is disappointing to say the least. Three of the four melee upgrades are abilities that feel like Kena should have from the outset (two dashing attacks and an overhead slam while in the air) the post-parry counterattack doesn’t feel much stronger than just attacking while the opponent is recoiling, and many other upgrades are just small and barely noticeable incremental improvements. I never once thought “It would be nice if I could fire five arrows instead of just four,” especially considering how fast arrows regenerate.
There are exceptions, of course: a charged bow shot that deals big damage at the cost of one bar of Courage, a slow hammer strike that could take out a group of enemies at once, and the ability to activate slow-mo while aiming without having to jump in the air were the kind of new techniques I was looking for more of. But aside from these, I never felt excited by upgrades because they rarely ever seemed like anything that would be especially useful or make combat any more fun.
Fighting baddies isn’t all you’ll be doing in Bridge of Spirits, and the fact that it balances combat, platforming, puzzle solving, and exploration so well is one of its strongest suits. You’re never doing any one thing for too long. After finishing up a challenging combat encounter, you’ll typically be challenged to solve some sort of puzzle to open the next area, sometimes commanding your small army of Rot like Pikmin to move objects in order to press down buttons, or give you a platform to stand on. Once you get the bomb powerup, you’ll regularly do fun platforming sequences where you must activate a series of platforms and figure out how to best get from point A to B before the platforms return to their natural states. And then on top of all of that, this is an open world with plenty of secrets hidden off the beaten path, though whether a majority of those secrets will be of interest to you is another story.
My one gripe about exploration and collectible hunting is that, with the exception of meditation spots ( which increase your max health) none of the collectibles really made much of an impact on my playthrough. For context, I’m someone that really doesn’t care all that much about cosmetics, which is why I never felt super compelled to seek out Bridge of Spirits’ collectibles when most of the time they just ended up being either new hats for my Rot or currency that I could use to buy more hats for my Rot. Sure, there are Cursed Chests, which are fun to track down because they force you to complete a combat challenge in order to open them – but it's almost always disappointing when you go through a tough battle and your reward is… yet another a funny little hat to put on one of your funny little creatures. So I pretty quickly lost the motivation to do more of it.
One final area that deserves a special mention is the boss battles, which are some of the most intense and challenging I’ve fought all year. Every fight feels distinct, the big ones have appropriately epic music, and there are a lot of them too. Some of the smaller boss battles even wind up becoming regular enemies that you have to fight against later, and that’s a nice way to revisit some of the most fun and difficult fights.