In a sense, Kena: Bridge of Spirits longs for something meditative. Superficially, the game is about restoring a dead world, not combating an alive one. You enter the game’s central community as an outsider, but try to help them on their own terms. However, Kena, both the character and her game, cannot outrun traditional verbs of play. Though the videogame makes claims to harmony and balance, it is still about control.
Kena opens in medias res, as our title character enters an abandoned village. All the inhabitants are dead, though the game avoids such language. Kena is a spirit guide, the “bridge” between death and life, so she must find the ghosts of the villagers and help them to the beyond. This means, of course, doing videogame shit. You’ll shoot arrows at targets and switches, throw bombs to open up passageways or rearrange puzzle elements, as well as fight big bosses with well signaled weak spots.
The game’s immediate fatal flaw is its genericness. The puzzles can be moderately amusing or clever, but fit into predictable configurations. Every design decision feels either ripped directly from another game or “good game design” YouTube essays and blog posts. Once you know the game’s tools of little helpers (a la Pikmin) plus arrows and bombs (a la Zelda), you know what the entire rest of the game will be made out of. Admittedly, that would not be true for children, who must take up a large portion of Kena’s target audience. It is difficult to avoid novelty when doing something for the first time. Still, a hypothetical child would be better off playing Sable, Ratchet and Clank, or virtually any Zelda. Kena offers nothing that its inspirations don’t already have, with more verve, bite, and impact.
The game’s varied aesthetic inspirations feel similarly inert. Comparisons to contemporary Disney or Pixar abound, but films like Brave and Moana at least have the pretense of a fleshed out culture. They gesture at a setting that might exist beyond the film’s runtime. Not Kena. It calls prominent in-game locations “The Mountain” and “The Village,” thereby rendering all of its world into pure allegory. Kena herself discusses a backstory, but it feels like fodder for a sequel rather than important character context. There is nothing wrong with reduced scale—it is somewhat refreshing that you are saving souls rather than worlds—but Kena generalizes so viciously that its story lacks any particularities. Fundamental questions like “what is the village’s culture?” or “what is the world outside of it like?” are left by the wayside. Furthermore, the game only gestures at why a spirit needs to be saved until after you have completed their quest. Then the game launches into a short film length info dump about the spirit’s former life. This sudden invocation of narrative renders any emotional stakes weightless.
Its borrowing from real world traditions, most obviously Japan, with Torii gates and paper lanterns, is vague. In Kena’s hands, these things are not even invocations of another culture. They are the veneer of exoticism, a thin layer of paint over a blank canvas, a way of lending its undefined spiritualism aesthetic legitimacy. To be fair, Kena borrows from diverse sources. The soundtrack was co-written and performed by Balinese musicians. Some of the game’s houses have thatched roofs and barrel vaulted ceilings. It is an intentional mis-mashing of cultures. That vagueness doesn’t feel like the natural mingling of disparate aesthetic traditions, but rather the cherry-picking of a Tumblr blog. The vagueness of Kena’s village implies that cultures can be plucked from without cultural context. The game does not have an eye toward what kind of material conditions make culture happen. Thus, its aesthetic inspirations are merely sheen and it cannot avoid the specter of orientalism.
Furthermore, Kena’s environmentalism is also paper thin. While it gestures at death being an important part of how life functions, it also offers up easy binaries. Much of the game is about freeing the village from corruption, i.e. menacing plants and flowers. Once an area is cleansed, it explodes with verdant green. Death disappears, tucked into the corner. The game, perhaps somewhat unwittingly, muzzles the threat of the natural world. Even as the narrative gestures at other ideas, and its conclusion does its best to combat them, the game itself is about subjugating nature.
The most pointed example of that subjection are Kena’s little helpers: The Rot. They are tiny nature spirits, like soot sprites or Kodama. They are not, though, signs of a natural world that exists outside of the understanding of the viewer. Kena collects them and through that collection expands her own abilities. The Rot are not independent beings, they are tools. While being “freed,” nature is again subjugated. It’s a showcase of the game’s sometimes careless approach to its themes. I want to be clear that Kena is trying. While the game could not be described as non-violent, Kena fights the emotions of spirits: anger, sadness, and despair. The Rot decomposes the dead things in the world. In some ways, these cute collectible critters are the game’s lone real manifestation of death. The game’s final act takes some interesting and complicated swings. All that, though, must take a back seat to what the game primarily wishes of you: to collect, to consume, to check boxes, to have an adventure for yourself. The game’s gestures and conclusion matter far less than what it says with its whole heart the rest of the runtime.
Every step of Kena: Bridge of Spirits feels well trodden, but it still refuses to learn fundamental lessons from the past. What pleasures Kena provides are intrinsic to most videogames: clicking buttons and finding trinkets. Eventually I did fall into that groove, but it was distracting, not compelling. When all the game’s darkness dissipates into bright green, when all wounds can be healed with determination and kindness, when death itself is a collectible friend, it is difficult to feel that distraction was worth it.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits was developed and published by Ember Lab. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4.
Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.