Developer: Ember Lab
Publisher: Ember Lab
Platform: Playstation 5
Ember Labs debut video game Kena: Bridge of Spirits is one of the quiet success stories of 2021. A first time effort from a video production company turned game dev studio, Kena generally flew under the radar pre-release as a budget-priced unknown quantity from an unproven studio. Yet it rightfully won plenty of plaudits from critics and fans alike when it launched in September. Ember Lab’s experience in video production clearly put them in good stead as the game has ended up being one of the most visually spectacular games of the year. The game draws inspiration from Balinese culture and Eastern mysticism and incorporates it with character and animation design that is reminiscent of Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra. The result is an eye-catching and immersive world filled with both adorable companions (the sickeningly cute Rot) and fearsome monsters that look like the PG-rated kindred spirits of Soulsborne enemies.
Bridge of Spirits is set in an unnamed fantasy world where traumatized souls are unable to cross over from the world of the living to the spirit realm. Spirit guides such as Kena help resolve the source of the trauma to let the spirits cross over.
In the beginning of the game, Kena arrives at a village that is abandoned by all but a handful of survivors. As she starts to piece together what happened, she is tasked with collecting masks and confronting the tormented souls that need to find their peace, so that she can save the village.
I think Ember Lab have really struck gold with the character of Kena and the world she inhabits. I found Kena to be an immediately likeable and well developed character. It’s rare to play a youthful character who has such a peaceful and spiritual temperament. It’s not just window-dressing either. Players can actually meditate as Kena or simply sit down in the forest and chill out with your adorable spirit creature companions, patting them on the head or playing a game with them.
Once the combat gets going, Kena has a basic, but well rounded moveset including light and heavy attacks, a dodge and a parry. As the game progresses she incorporates further weapons and abilities into her arsenal and this is complimented by the Rot also providing further assistance.
For a first time effort, the game mechanics are impressively fully-featured, if not heavily inspired by other action-adventure games of recent years. Where I give Ember Lab credit is that they do a fantastic job accentuating their positives and they seem very aware of their limitations and they don’t push themselves beyond their scope when it comes to the scale of the world, the length of the game or the complexity of the gameplay and combat. I think the game has precisely as much depth as it needs to for the length of the journey. I think its one of the those games that comes out in the first year of a new console when the release calendar isn’t too crowded, that goes on to become a cult classic and fondly remembered years later. It’s even more impressive when you consider the core staff that created this game is just fifteen staff.
It will be interesting to see what Ember Lab do next after this enormously positive first effort. With a bigger team, more time and potentially a bigger budget, its easy to imagination their next game being a headline act for the PS5. Or perhaps they’re happy to stay small and nimble, and their next project could be something similar to Kena, a gorgeous, pint-sized adventure that charms your socks off.