Kena: Bridge of Spirits preview: a charming God of War/Pikmin mash-up

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the very first video game from brand-new studio Coal Laboratory. Its very first trailer made it appear like an adorable romp through a forest overtaken by darkness, however after investing over an hour with a hands-on demonstration of Kena: Bridge of Spirits, I’ve discovered it’s remarkably tough. Kena might appear like the current from Pixar, however the last mini-boss I came across kicked my ass up, down, and sideways.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits has layers to it — some adorable, others difficult — and it produced an enjoyable sneak peek loaded with surprises.

What is Kena: Bridge of Spirits?

Kena prepares to take aim at an enemy

Teleporting, monkey-like opponents checked me after I got the bow
Image: Coal Laboratory

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a character action video game with a close-to-the-back third-person viewpoint. I play as Kena, a woman with a unique combating design, a groovy stick, and the capability to commune with nature around her.

At the start of the demonstration, I directed Kena through the forest, working to discover among 3 artifacts required to clean among 3 locations in the video game world. I ran around with my stick, followed by a merry band of Rot. Their name might sound gross, however these remarkably cuddly animals not just help me in puzzles, however assist me in battle also.

I dash through the forest and run into a small group of wooden foes. In response, Kena’s posture changes; it’s time to fight. My attack controls sit comfortably on the right trigger and bumper, similar to God of War. I can hit these enemies with light or heavy attacks, and the better I do, the more my Rot can aid me in battle. Eventually I charge up my gauge enough to send the Rot on the attack, freezing my enemy and letting me get a few hits in.

When the encounter ends, I explore the area and find another member to join my Rot party. Now I have nine; one more and I’ll reach a new threshold, unlocking another gauge to use in combat.

I keep moving forward, deeper into the forest. I run into some platforming sections, areas to collect currency, and more combat arenas. Ember Lab’s founders explained to me over our Zoom call how I can use my Rot gauge to heal myself or attack, even prompting me to unlock a powerful hammer blast that uses my Rot to deal massive damage.

Eventually, I pick up a major augment for Kena: a bow.

Familiar, in a good way

Kena aims at a grapple flower

These flowers act like grappling hooks when you shoot them
Image: Ember Lab

Kena swaps playstyles quickly, making me feel like I’m playing more than one game at once.

In combat, I feel like I’m Kratos, beating on an enemy or calling on Atreus (in this game, my Rot) to aid me in battle. When I’m using a bow, I feel like Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn, jumping into the air to shoot slow-motion shots and nailing weak points. And when I’m using my Rot to solve puzzles and move things around, I’m Captain Olimar controlling a legion of Pikmin. Somehow, all of this feels right in Kena’s hands.

In a mini-boss fight, I could use my new bow to break weak points, dodge out of the way, and use both of my Rot attacks to freeze the boss before bashing it with my hammer. I could’ve solved that fight in multiple ways, however controlling Kena felt fluid no matter what I was doing.

From what I played, Ember Lab has successfully blended these playstyles into a cohesive game where I always felt like I had tons of options. As my army grew, and as I unlocked more abilities and collected new pieces of equipment, I felt my potential grow.

Deceptively cute

Kena fights the Wood Knight mini-boss

This asshole gave me a run for my money
Image: Ember Lab

That Rot combo on the final mini-boss felt nice to pull off, however I also got my ass handed to me the first two times we fought. Kena’s battle requires a lot of finesse. Once I start an animation, I have to follow through, and both Kena and her enemies strike hard. For a game this cute — and the Rot do feel designed to sell plushies — I wasn’t expecting to get beat down the way I did.

That said, the fight didn’t feel unfair, or even insurmountable. As soon as I focused up, I started experimenting with what I could do. I was able to learn in real time and take the boss down without even getting hit once on my third attempt.

Kena promises depth for all kinds of players, both young and old, under an almost deceptive layer of cuteness. For young players, the adorable Rot characters can populate areas in the world while you’re exploring. Your little buddies will just pop up on a table you’re looking at, giving life to the world around you with an explosion of cuteness. The game also offers an easier difficulty, so players who just want to play the game for the story (or the Rot) can see it through to the end. Meanwhile, more advanced players have a host of difficulty settings available that can take that boss from “I need to focus” to “I need to be perfect.”

Kena will last about 10-12 hours for a normal playthrough, according to the developers — but it’s got a lot going on inside. Kena and Ember Lab pay homage to action games that have come before, but with a cutesy twist. More impressively, the studio blends the two together so the style and battle work in best consistency, feelingly distinctively Kena.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits launches Aug. 24 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.