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Kena: Bridge of Spirits hands-on: Pikmin-like creatures steal the show

While Microsoft and Nintendo have dominated the gaming news cycle thanks to strong E3 showings, PlayStation owners still have a lot to look forward to in 2021. Deathloop is poised to be the PS5’s next killer app, Horizon Forbidden West looks stunning, and Solar Ash seems like an indie classic in the making. But the biggest game to watch this summer might just be Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits - State of Play Trailer | PS5, PS4

The indie title, the debut game from Ember Lab, is a colorful action-adventure game that combines whimsical creatures and surprisingly challenging combat. Sony has heavily spotlighted the game during its State of Play events recently, and it’s easy to see why while taking in its gorgeous world.

I recently went hands-on with the game as part of this year’s Tribeca Fest. Based on a one-hour demo, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a promising experience that combines the kind of storytelling one would expect from an animated film with some surprisingly delightful gameplay mechanics.

Fighting back

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a pretty standard action-adventure title. Players control Kena, a young spirit guide who helps the deceased pass over to the other side. It’s a third-person game that involves solving environmental puzzles, traversing lush locations, and fighting enemies with a magical staff.

Kena fights a Wood Sprout boss in Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

The chunk that I got to play threw me right into the thick of things. Kena was deep in a colorful, jungle-like area. She finds a mask, which points her in the direction of a mountain. From there, I was trotting around the environment, looking for a path while stumbling on little secrets along the way.

Combat started simple enough but quickly started getting more complex through the hour. At first, my toolset was pretty basic. I could smack enemies with a light or heavy hit, perform a dodge roll, and guard with a magical aura. It was surprisingly tough, too, which I didn’t expect considering the game’s delicate art style. I got absolutely destroyed in my first battle against basic enemies. Guarding and dodging aren’t optional here.

At one point, I leveled up by collecting enough secrets in the world, unlocking additional skills. That’s when combat really began to open up. I added a spin attack to my arsenal, and it seems like there are plenty more options the deeper the game goes.

Kena drwas back her bow in Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

Combat really starts to click once Kena receives a bow, adding long-range attacks to her arsenal. By the time I hit the demo’s big boss, I was shooting arrows at enemies and then rushing in for a few good staff thwacks, not unlike a big-budget game like Horizon Zero Dawn. That fluid mix of long-range and close-range combat gives Kena’s combat more depth than one might expect from a game of this scale.

Introducing the Rot

While many of its action-adventure elements are expected for the genre (like Uncharted-style climbing segments where Kena scales up cliffs), there’s one surprising mechanic that steals the show. Kena is aided by tiny creatures called Rot, which are kind of like the soot sprites from Spirited Away. They’re tiny black creatures that follow Kena around and can be controlled in a variety of ways.

Yes, Kena: Bridge of Spirits has an entire Pikmin-like system, and it’s a delight.

What makes the Rot work so well is that they have a purpose in both exploration and combat. While traveling around the world, players bump into different objects the Rot can interact with. Pressing Square sends them off to complete a task, like fixing a fox statue or recruiting another Rot. The level-up system seems to be based on how many Rot you’ve collected, so the game incentivizes players to explore and build up their squad.

There are little environmental puzzles to solve, too. At one point, my Rot picked up a big box. I commanded them to drop it next to a tall cliff so I could climb on top and reach the ledge. In another section, they turned into a roaming tidal wave that I could control with my staff. I could use them to attack some thorny plants in the area, clearing a secret path for me.

Their role in battles is even more intriguing. When a fight starts, the Rot get scared and scatter. The more enemies players defeat, the more courage they get to return. When a round meter fills up, players can hold R2 and then press Square to launch the Rot at an enemy. They’ll swarm around it, causing a distraction that lets players get some free hits in.

The protagonist and a creature in Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

The Rot have other uses, too. They can be launched at plants around the battlefield, which restores a player’s health. They’ll also need to be thrown at enemy spawning flora to destroy them. The meter needs to be refilled every time the Rot are used, so players have to think carefully about how they’re deployed in battle. Does it make more sense to put them on the attack or conserve some energy in case players find themselves low on health? That little layer of decision-making adds some extra brainpower to Kena’s more basic combat fundamentals.

That element alone was enough to hold my interest throughout my demo. I was delighted whenever I found a surprising new use for them. Kena herself might be the titular hero, but the Rot are the real stars of the show, and I’m excited to see what else my little pals can do.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits comes to PS4, PS5, and PC via the Epic Games Store on August 24.

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