It’s not often you see a company that releases a “first game” that stands the test of time. Naughty Dog gave us Way of the Warrior on 3DO, a schlocky Mortal Kombat clone with a White Zombie soundtrack; and Insomniac Games delivered the first-person shooter Disruptor, which wasn’t bad but couldn’t quite match the momentum of Doom and Goldeneye. Still, they led to bigger and better things for each company.
And now we have Ember Lab, a team making its debut with the platforming adventure Kena: Bridge of Spirits. But unlike those interesting but flawed efforts above, this game is really good. Like, it actually brings up an interesting quandary – if the developer can knock out a game of this magnitude on its first try, can you possibly imagine what it could do with its next endeavor?!
But that’s later on. Kena has magic going throughout, a game that reminds us how excellent old-school platforming games used to be, while at the same time keeping its design contemporary and in the now. It’s a nice trick, executed to near perfection and ending up as one of this year’s most magical adventures.
The game surrounds the title character, a venturer who tries to relieve troubled souls of their pain so that they can move on to the next realm. That’s easier said than done, as she has to unravel some mysteries and even take on a few tormented types that aren’t willing to go as smoothly as she hopes. But it’s here that we’re introduced to two magical elements that stand out.
The first is the storytelling. Ember Lab tells a really great tale here, told through beautiful cut-scenes that blend in nicely with the action. But the second is with this adorable race of creatures known simply as The Rot. You’ll collect these over the course of your journey, utilizing these cute little guys to relieve harrowed land into something brighter and more beautiful. They serve a great purpose – and are also equally cuddly, perfect if Ember Lab decides to release them as stuffed animals over the holiday season. (Please?)
Kena is a splendid looking game, particularly on the PlayStation 5, as the game runs at 60 frames per second (in performance mode) without missing a hitch on its visual fidelity. The end result is a bright, beautiful platformer that never lets up. Things do get repetitive in terms of terrain every now and then, but never to the point that you want to take your eyes off screen. The animation is also sharp, and Kena looks wonderful, a heroine that’s not too daunting, but can definitely hold her own against a demonic soul. The only downside is the slight drop in frames in certain sections, though the game’s appearance still holds up pretty nicely.
Source: Ember Lab
Audio is excellent too. Jason Gallaty provides a superb soundtrack that never lets up, working alongside Gamelan Cudamani to create something along the lines of beauty. It matches up with the visual terrain just about perfectly. The voicework is excellent too, and never gets hokey; and the Rot even have their own little sound effects that make them somehow even cuter. Dawwww.
This game also features a fine mix of puzzle solving and combat, along the lines of the better Legend of Zelda games. Kena controls beautifully with double jumps and getting around areas; and the combat and dodge effects are really well done, right down to the more awesome boss battles that come later in the game. There are times when you’ll have to do a little bit of backtracking, but it never grows tedious, as you can sometimes discover new terrain that you haven’t seen before. This game packs plenty of surprises, and plays just fine throughout.
There are lots of secrets to find as well, and it’ll take a good deal of time to track down all the Rot for a complete collection. I wish there was some form of New Game+ to go along, but perhaps we’ll see that in a future update. The adventure, however, is still quite fulfilling as it stands, so don’t let it throw you.
In the end, Ember Lab has done something truly magical with Kena. It’s mesmerizing to look at and listen to; it plays like some of the better platformers from previous eras; and it has memorable characters to spare. It’s a reminder of how important games of this type used to be, and how someone could easily bring them back. The fact it’s a studio that’s hitting the ground running with something this remarkable is a nice little bonus. Don’t miss this game.