Looking at Kena: Bridge of Spirits from afar, you'd likely be surprised to hear that it's Ember Lab's first game as a developer. Graphically, there's nothing better out there at the moment and the narrative it tells throughout is wonderfully orchestrated. From our first look at Kena and the Rot, we knew we'd be smitten by whatever Ember Lab's title had in store for us.
We weren't wrong, for the most part. When it comes to Kena and the Rot, there's nothing quite like it out there - they're charming beyond compare. The Rot are as adorable as any "animal companion" you'd find in a Pixar movie, as cliche as that sounds. Initially, you're enamoured by the animation and character work in play.
However, the game as a whole isn't quite as wonderful as its visuals lead us to believe. Kena: Bridge of Spirits does a lot of things right but it isn't perfect. It's a somewhat hollow experience.
Ember Lab's game is good, but not great. It's a house with the lights on, but there's not a lot worth heading inside for. You expect so much from a game as polished as Kena: Bridge of Spirits and we're a little disappointed with the experience. Here's why...
It's a cinematic masterpiece throughout
In Kena: Bridge of Spirits, you play as the titular Kena - she's a Spirit Guide who finds herself helping people transition from the physical realm to the spirit world. As you can imagine, this makes every scene and every character interaction with Kena emotionally charged. As a narrative, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is heartwarming - therapeutic even - and simply a joy.
Couple this with a Pixar-like animation style and you're onto a winner - Kena: Bridge of Spirits is one of the most beautiful PS5 games out there at the moment and it's hard to think of another title with quite the same level of charm.
The voice acting might not be the best we've ever heard, but it's more than enough to carry the emotive narrative in play. When you couple this with the wonderful soundtrack, it's easy to get lost in the tamed wilderness that Kena: Bridge of Spirits presents.
Ember Lab is ticking almost all the right boxes
Kena: Bridge of Spirits also looks fantastic and plays well, on the whole. It ticks a lot of the boxes you look for in an action-adventure title from an indie developer.
Combat is simple and easy to get to grips with - the limited selection of abilities and attacks, which you unlock throughout the game via a skill tree (of sorts) drastically improve on the basic "light attack, heavy attack" gameplay.
Each area of the map in Kena: Bridge of Spirits has a set number of collectable items and puzzles for you to complete - vitally striking that fine balance between a lack of content and an overwhelming amount of side activities to do. A lot of semi-open world titles like Kena: Bridge of Spirits suffer from this, nowadays.
Also, the enemies you come up against are varied enough that you're forced to use all your attacking options in combat - however, they never feel unbeatable. We played through Kena: Bridge of Spirits on the "normal" difficulty setting - Spirit Guide - and found combat to be enjoyably easy. As long as we were paying attention, we didn't have any issues. It wasn't a breeze, but it was far from a chore to grind out victories against the selection of bosses you face.
This isn't to say combat was perfect, though... On the whole, it felt a little dated. When you look at the next-gen graphics in play and the incredible narrative being told, it didn't quite match up. Essentially...
It's missing that spark - and you're left wanting more
Kena: Bridge of Spirits feels like a game you've played before and it doesn't really offer any innovation at all. The combat is good, but there are frustrating delays when performing one of the few combos Kena can perform and Kena can only really take three hits before she's dead - no matter how much you upgrade your max health pool.
Playing Kena: Bridge of Spirits reminded me, in a lot of ways, of playing the Spyro Reignited Trilogy. Its gameplay is classic, but far from what you'd consider complex, and it's as charming as they come. However, it doesn't really bring anything new to the table. Spyro was first released in 1998 and the release of the Reignited Trilogy in 2018 just smooths out the rough edges. It's a nostalgia trip that's designed to preserve the feel of the original games. Kena: Bridge of Spirits feels like a "Reignited" version of a game that didn't exist.
Much like these early action-adventure games, it's a series of interesting boss fights - wrapped up in a charming narrative - that's padded out by simple combat encounters and a handful of puzzles in each environment. We know it's Ember Lab's first title - and it's a fantastic game for a debut - but you're left wanting more from it.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a polished experience, but not one with any real depth. It's a fantastic look into the future for Ember Lab, but it won't be the game they're known for in ten years time. It feels as though Ember Lab has been finding its feet with Kena: Bridge of Spirits - now, we're ready to see what the team can really do.
What's our Verdict?
Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a good game, on the whole. It's stunningly beautiful and full of charming characters wrapped in a heartwarming story. However, its gameplay is simplistic and lacks innovation, keeping it from being great.
Ember Lab's title is a harsh reminder that not every game with stunning graphics is going to be a winner. It's polished and worth playing, but we can't imagine that it's going to be remembered as a classic.
RealSport Rating: 3.5 Stars (Out of 5)
Kena: Bridge of Spirits was played on PS5 with a code provided by the publisher.