Spirits are trapped between worlds. They sow chaos and unnatural decay. This decay is known as corruption, and it spreads throughout an abandoned village. Kena, a young girl who is known as a Spirit Guide, sets out on a journey to unravel the mysteriousness of this community, unlocking the backstories of the people who once controlled the land, while at the same time clearing the corruption and the spirits who are causing it.
From the trailers or the artwork, one might think this game was developed by a AAA studio. That’s not the case. It was actually composed of just a small group of 14 individuals who make up Ember Lab. It’s an incredibly ambitious first project, especially with an independent studio so small. And yet, somehow, they pulled it off. A title with beautiful artwork, an amazing soundtrack that penetrates right into the heart, cinematics that are comparable to Disney’s quality, and a story that’s emotionally captivating.
But if we dig a little deeper into the history of Ember Lab, things will start to make more sense. In 2016 they created the short film Majora’s Mask – Terrible Fate. They also made the original sci-fi short film called Dust. The former cinematic has garnered nearly 12 million views on YouTube. They certainly carried over their 3D animation blood to Kena.
Further ode to Zelda: Majora’s Mask is taken from some of the music composers. You may have heard of the name Theophany or ROZEN. Both of these musicians have composed fan-made arrangements of the game’s soundtrack, and both of them were involved in the music for Kena.
Yet another reference to Majora’s Mask is made in-game with the use of masks to uncover secret paths or collectibles. Clearly, these guys are fans of Eiji Aonuma and Koji Kondo’s work.
But back to Kena. It originally launched for PlayStation consoles and the Epic Games Store on September 21, 2021. Fast forward a year later, and now the game is available on Steam. Not only this, but the game got an anniversary update that includes New Game+, spirit guide trials, new outfits for Kena, equippable charmstones that enhance her abilities, and updates to the photo mode that include more poses and lighting setups.
In case you’re not aware of how the game works, it’s set up in third-person, where you’re in control of Kena. She wields a staff that can be used for more than just whacking enemies with it: it can also be used as a bow. She’s got bombs too. Throughout her journey, she collects these little creatures known as the Rot. The Rot will further enhance her combat abilities; she can trap enemies in a circle of Rot, temporarily distracting them, or use them to clear out an area of corruption. Kind of think of Kena: Bridge of Spirits as having similar gameplay to the Tomb Raider reboot series or Horizon: Zero Dawn.
I’ve heard some people describe the enemy difficulty as Souls-like. Well, they’d be right. Even on normal difficulty (or what the game calls “Spirit” mode) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cussed out in frustration at being unable to clear a horde of enemies. And don’t even get me started with the bosses. But it makes you think more clearly in terms of how you’re going to overcome the enemies. It encourages you to seek different combat strategies. Instead of constantly whacking an enemy with the staff, for example, you may want to play it safe by keeping your distance, tossing some arrows their way, or by throwing a bomb at them and exploding it with Kena’s Pulse ability.
Shielding is possible, but Kena can only take a few hits before it’s no longer useful. Parrying is also achievable, but the timing window on this is so small that it’s very difficult to do. I just wish there was an upgrade or charmstone that she could use to increase the timing window on this.
Outside of combat, there’s occasional puzzle elements, although these can be a bit bland. For instance, Kena may need to direct a group of Rot to pick up an object and move it to a different location so she can access areas that otherwise were too high to reach. She may also need to hit a set of stones with her arrows in a particular order, though often the game doesn’t give you a hint as to what the order should be. You’ll just have to guess what the right order is. This is one area that could have been improved.
One thing I found annoying was collecting the Rot. You’ll find them hidden throughout the world, be it under a rock, inside a chest, or inside of a building. There’s this cutscene that lasts for 10 seconds or so every time you collect one. I don’t need to watch this every time Kena gets a Rot, because later on in the game you’ll be collecting as many as 100. This was something that should have been cut off after collecting the first couple of Rot in the game.
The story itself lasts about 15 hours. It’s also open-world. Upgrades to Kena’s abilities can be unlocked after collecting a certain amount of karma. She might be able to cast five arrows at a time rather than four, for example. Meditation spots scattered throughout the map permanently increase her health. Believe me, you’re going to want to take advantage of these as much as you can; you’re going to be getting a lot of game overs otherwise.
I wish I could comment on the story itself, how much it tugged on my heart strings, but for the sake of keeping this review spoiler-free, I won’t get into detail about it. You’ll just have to find out yourself.
How Does it Linux/Steam Deck?⌗
On desktop I’m running the game with the following hardware:
- GTX 1660 Ti
- 24 GB DDR4
For software, I’m using Arch and GE-Proton7-35. I have the resolution downscaled to 1080p on my 1440p monitor, graphics set to High. I get about 60-70 FPS on average. I can technically get away with the Ultra preset, but that drops the framerate to around 30-40 FPS.
You can use either DirectX11 or DirectX12. By default DX11 is used, and this is the API I recommend using. You can technically use DX12, but it has been a little less stable in my experience. For instance, if I Alt-Tab out of the game, it will hang after a few minutes. I don’t run into that problem with DX11. The performance difference is negligible as well.
The game is using Unreal Engine 4, so you have to keep in mind the quirks that come with this engine, such as stuttering when loading in new areas. There’s a few mods over on Nexus Mods that you can make use of, such as skipping the intro video, 60 FPS cutscenes (rather than the default 24 FPS), and new shaders. There’s even a DLSS unlocker that we can use that replaces the game’s DLSS with AMD’s FSR 2.1, meaning we can use this outside of RTX GPUs.
As for Steam Deck, well, on my end it’s running fairly well on the default settings. Although others are reporting that on their side the framerates are poor with the default graphics. I think it may have to do with the fact that my Deck’s UMA frame buffer size is set to 4 GB. By default, the buffer size is less than this. Please have a look at Steam Deck HQ’s report for more information.
Overall I have found it hard to find any flaws with this gem. Combat can at times be frustratingly difficult, the puzzles aren’t very challenging, and having to endure the Rot cutscene dozens of times over again is painstaking. But other than that I enjoy every little bit of this fascinating tale. As I had mentioned earlier, the soundtrack is incredible, the animations are fantastic, the colorful world that Kena explores was certainly given its' attention, and…I could just go on and on. All of this with just a team of 14 people. Plus there’s replayability now that there is New Game+, with new enemy attacks and an opportunity to find and collect upgrades that you previously didn’t get to.
- amazing graphics
- beautiful and colorful artwork
- Disney-quality cutscenes
- incredible, emotional soundtrack, composed from Theophany, ROZEN, and others
- captivating story
- decent story length (15 hours on first playthrough, then there’s New Game+ for even more playability)
- combat can at times be frustrating, particularly with a few of the bosses
- parrying needs precise timing; this window could have been increased
- 10-second cutscene is played every time you collect a Rot; this needs to be removed
- puzzle elements can be a bit dull
Special thanks to PressEngine for sending a review copy of the game over. Also thanks for sending a complimentary copy of the soundtrack; I’ll be sure to listen to this outside of playing the game (no, they didn’t sponsor this review; I’m just honored to have receieved such an awesome game like this). Here’s hoping Ember Lab works on a sequel! Get the game on Steam, on sale for $30 for the next 20 hours or so.