REVIEW: KENA: BRIDGE OF SPIRITS is a triumph for video game animation, but is that enough?

Playing through the opening minutes of Kena: Bridge of Spirits, I was in awe. Its art style is unlike anything I’d ever seen in a video game. Before now, I bristled at any comparison between a game’s animation and the work of Pixar. There have been some beautiful video games, a few that even rival modern-day film animation, but none of those tried to capture the unique look and feel of Pixar. Kena, however, truly captures the spirit and sensibilities of the legendary studio and turns it into a playable experience. There are occasional rough patches, and in a perfect world the animation of regular gameplay would perfectly mirror the cinematic sequences. But Kena: Bridge of Spirits, the debut game from Ember Labs, is a landmark achievement for video game animation.

Reviewed on PlayStation 5. Review code provided by Ember Labs.

After I was introduced to the gameplay, my feelings about Kena leveled off from the incredible high of those first few minutes. The gameplay is enjoyable, but not particularly noteworthy. You fight with a staff, later adding a bow and bombs to your arsenal, and combat is heavily reliant on your ability to dodge and parry enemies’ attacks. The game rewards patience and good timing, punishing players who rush into battle instead of waiting for the right moment to strike. It’s not a novel approach to combat, but it’s consistently engaging.

The game takes a lot of inspiration from the 3D Legend of Zelda titles that came before Breath of the Wild, and it suffers from similar pitfalls. The biggest is that when you first survey the world, you feel like you can go anywhere. But, in reality, the game very much expects you to stay on-path. Stray from it and you’ll encounter invisible barriers, bringing the restraints of the game environment into focus. When that happens, you’re taken out of what should be a fully immersive experience.

The other major influence on Kena: Bridge of Spirits is open-world action-adventures. You progress through the game by visiting different areas on the map and defeating the evil spirits that inhabit them, with the occasional platform challenge or puzzle thrown in. The addition of new weapons and abilities prevents the gameplay from growing stale, but just barely. It’s certainly not enough to make each section of the game feel like a fresh experience. The very last battle shakes things up to deliver an exciting climax. It’s unfortunate that the preceding hours aren’t nearly as ambitious.

While the gameplay has its shortcomings, the most disappointing part of Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the deeply forgettable story. “Spirit guide restores balance to nature” is all-too-familiar territory, and Kena doesn’t do anything to stand apart. I couldn’t tell you the name of a single character not named Kena, because every one of them failed to make an impression, at least through their words. What I do remember from Kena’s journey is entirely owed to the caliber of the animation and the inventive designs of the protagonist, her allies, and her antagonists. I may not recollect the characters’ names, but I absolutely remember their designs and visual flair.

A better script would have made Kena: Bridge of Spirits into something truly special, but the writing does a disservice to the stunning animation. The reason Pixar films are so enduring is that their visuals are matched or surpassed by their sharp writing and strong characters. If Ember Labs put as much care into the narrative and character development as they did into the animation, the team would have turned Kena: Bridge of Spirits into an instant classic, instead of an impressive looking game with a lot of caveats.

If you put aside the visuals, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a solid if unspectacular video game. An admirable first attempt for a developer, but one with a lot of room for improvement. For animation fans, however, Kena is something remarkable. It’s a testament to what video game technology can do with a talented animation studio behind it, and perfect for anyone who’s dreamed of playing a game as beautiful as the animated films they see in theaters.

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KENA is like a Pixar film made playable, but the gameplay and writing don’t live up to the beautiful animation.
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