A Real Link To The Past

HIGH Gorgeous visuals.

LOW Obscurity in its puzzles and navigation. 

WTF Sony, let this team make a new Jak & Daxter. 

I love and respect many of the major, cinematic triple-A games that have come out in the last few years. As someone who recently bought a 4K TV and has been replaying 2018’s God of War, I’m still enamored with the detail and presentation that modern showstoppers manage to throw at the player. However, no amount of bells and whistles will make me forget that I miss stylized action-platformers starring colorful mascots. The PS2 era had many of them, balancing simple, entertaining stories with a wide variety in gameplay.

Sure, we still get the occasional Ratchet and Clank here and there, but why aren’t there more?

Ember Lab, a development studio with experience creating animated short films and commercials, plans to recapture the spirit of the action-platformer heyday with their debut, Kena: Bridge of Spirits. This adventure sees players controlling a girl named Kena as she searches for the sacred Mountain Shrine. In her world, those who die can still inhabit the physical world before moving on if they have unfinished business. Kena acts as a spirit guide, using her talents to help spirits leave the physical world in peace. 

Played from a third-person perspective, gameplay revolves around combat and puzzle-solving. Skirmishes are simple (but still enjoyable) thanks to the versatility of her staff. Instead of equipping different weapons, the staff acts as a Swiss army knife of sorts, letting Kena do things like grapple to different spots around the map, light-up magic crystals to open doors, and it can even convert itself into a bow for long-ranged attacks. Kena can also learn different light and heavy attacks thanks to a skill tree. 

Aiding her in combat and exploration are adorable small creatures known collectively as Rot. These dark, big-eyed creatures look like stuffed animals, smiling as they crowd around Kena. At the press of a button, they can be used to attack enemies or pick up objects to help solve puzzles. The light strategy and variety involved in their use help keep the action from getting stale.

While the combat isn’t the deepest around, the enemies do pose a healthy challenge from time to time. However, what really stumped me weren’t the enemy encounters — it was the puzzles.

I admit that I’m generally pretty bad at puzzles in games of this sort so this didn’t surprise me, but I did find myself relying on the built-in hint guides available via the PS5’s dashboard. For those who don’t know, the PlayStation 5 launched with a nifty hint feature, called Game Help, that works with most PS exclusives.

Pressing the PS button on the controller brings it up while playing, and it will guide players through the current sections they’re in. It helped me more than once with the lack of a mini-map or any markers on the HUD. Also, being provided solutions to puzzles and challenges was great.

The puzzles themselves either involve using the Rot to move statues to a specific spot, shooting targets in a specific order, or killing a set number of enemies within a certain time limit. Some are easier than others, but at times, I felt like they were a bit obscure. I appreciate that my PS5 had my back, but those without Playstation Plus and the Game Help feature are out of luck since it’s exclusive to subscribers. That said, I think the overall experience would have been improved with a better hint system baked into the game itself, or at least a minimap.

Even with occasional combat difficulty and some obscure puzzles, Kena is is an absolutely gorgeous adventure. Ember’s origins as an animation studio dating back to the release of an impressive Zelda fan short, (which is appropriate given the influence the series has clearly had on Kena) are on full display thanks to gorgeous vistas and beautifully animated cutscenes. Kena is expressive every time she attacks, runs, swims, and climbs, and I found myself pausing to get a closer look at her model in the photo mode. Her facial expressions change with different actions, so seeing her raw fury as she unleashed a heavy attack was great. It’s easily one of the most impressive-looking games of the year and sports strong style.

Kena fills the void left by a now-scarce genre that used to be far more common than it is today. It’s a simple story of love and loss with gorgeous visuals and a play loop ripped straight from the PS2 era. I would have liked a few more concessions to help players navigate the world and its challenges, but I still enjoyed my time here — it doesn’t reinvent the action-adventure platformer wheel, but it managed to put a nostalgic smile on my face.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is published by and developed by Ember Lab. It is available on PS4, PS5, and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS5. Approximately 10 hours were spent in the single-player and the game was completed. There is no multiplayer. 

Parents: According to the ESRB this game is rated  T for Fantasy Violence. While the game isn’t too violent for young kids, a lot of the game’s narrative deals with death, tragic loss, and the unwillingness to let go. I think most parents would be better off letting only older kids play this one. 

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles and on-screen instructions cannot be adjusted but the audio is not needed to enjoy this game, thanks to the abundance of visual cues. This game is fully accessible. 

Remappable Controls: Yes the controls are remappable. 

Cj Salcedo
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