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Kena: Bridge of Spirits plays it safe — and that's OK

kena bridge of spirits
(Image credit: Ember Lab)

Kena: Bridge of Spirits was one of the first games we ever saw for the PS5. As such, fans have been waiting for more than a year to take control of Kena and guide her through a fantasy world inspired by East Asian mythology. During the Tribeca Film Festival, I got a chance to go hands-on with Kena, and got a substantial taste of this spirited action game, which will debut on August 24 for both PS5 and PC.

My demo comprised an hour of gameplay from what appeared to be an early part of the adventure. I took control of Kena: a teenage girl who has the ability to communicate with the spirit world – as the game’s title suggests. There’s a distinct Avatar: The Last Airbender vibe, since Kena wields a magic staff and acts as a medium between the mortal world and a more fantastical one. And, like Avatar, Kena: Bridge of Spirits draws inspiration from East Asian folklore, in its visuals, setting and story.

For example: The demo begins with Kena agreeing to track down a lost spirit named Taro. Only she can see the two mischievous spirits, Saiya and Beni, who know the way to the sage Rusu’s house. To find Taro’s trail, she stands atop fonts of spiritual energy, and dons an enchanted fox mask. Kena: Bridge of Spirits has a whole set of magical rules that govern its world, and internalizing the game’s world-building is very much part of the adventure.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits gameplay

kena bridge of spirits

(Image credit: Ember Lab)

Gameplay-wise, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a traditional action/adventure title. The first thing I had to do was find my way to Rusu’s house, which was far away, through a dark forest and on top of a daunting peak. When I entered the forest, I found that foreboding red flowers blocked my way. In order to get rid of them, I’d have to learn two important skills: fighting off enemies, and harnessing the Rot.

First off, combat in Kena is pretty simple. The red flowers you’ll encounter periodically spawn various types of enemies. Basic varieties wield axes and shields, and require either light or heavy attacks with the staff to defeat. Larger foes can lob ranged spells at you, and require blocking, dodging – or using the Rot.

The Rot are Kena’s most creative gameplay mechanic, although they bear more than a passing resemblance to Nintendo’s Pikmin. As Kena explores the world, she’ll recruit small, cute, shadowy creatures known collectively as the Rot. Out of combat, they can help her solve puzzles by smashing through barriers and manipulating distant objects. In combat, they’re Kena’s only way to destroy the red flowers that spawn foes. They can also paralyze stronger foes, however, so combat can become a balancing act between using the Rot to stay alive, and using the Rot to end a fight.

While the Rot are a creative touch, the rest of Kena’s gameplay should be pretty familiar if you’ve played an action/adventure title sometime between the PS2 era and now. After my first few combat sessions, the map opened up onto a series of isolated, rocky ledges, and I had to platform my way across to Rusu’s house. You can double-jump, shimmy across ledges and even use the Rot to stabilize platforms for short periods of time. Again, there’s nothing groundbreaking here, but it all works pretty well.

From there, the demo proceeded conventionally. Rusu’s house had been overtaken by the malicious red flowers, which necessitated a short trip into a nearby cave (preceded by an extremely frustrating combat section; Kena cannot take many hits, and her healing abilities are limited during battle). There, I encountered my first boss: a fearsome Kappa demon. I dodged his projectiles, fought off his minions, used the Rot to paralyze him and whittled down his health over a few minutes.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits outlook

After I’d rescued Rusu, I got one more ability to close out the demo: transforming my staff into a bow and arrows. After a few increasingly difficult target practice sections, I got to put my skills to the test against the Wood Knight boss: a monster that was highly resistant to melee, but had vulnerable yellow crystals all over its body. By sniping them with the bow, I was able to incapacitate and down it with only a few blows.

That was the end of the demo, save for a few minutes to explore Rusu’s house and play with the upgrade system. As you defeat enemies and explore the environment, you’ll get various kinds of currency for new staff and bow abilities. You can also hunt down well-hidden Rot upgrades, which let you use their abilities more frequently.

Rot close-up

(Image credit: Ember Lab)

Having played it for about an hour, what struck me most about Kena: Bridge of Spirits was just how conventional it feels. The story and setting seem promising, and it’s heartening to see such an ambitious production from a tiny studio like Ember Lab. But I wonder whether gamers will approach Kena in that light, or treat it like the next indispensable PS5 console exclusive.

Either way, Kena seems worth checking out for action/adventure fans, particularly those who want something family-friendly. Since we never actually got a great Avatar: The Last Airbender game, this may be the next-best thing.

Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.