Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an upcoming action-adventure game developed and published by Ember Lab. The story follows Kena, a young spirit guide who uses her magical abilities to help deceased people move from the physical to the spirit world. The game is presented through a third-person perspective. The player uses Kena’s staff for attacking enemies, and her pulse ability for defending against attacks. They are tasked with collecting small spirit companions known as the Rot, who help to complete tasks and battle against enemies.

The game’s development is led by brothers Mike and Josh Grier, founders of Ember Lab. Having spent several years creating commercials and branded applications, the development team shifted to creating an original video game. They partnered with Sony Interactive Entertainment for a console-exclusive deal, and grew the team to 15 core employees.

The game’s art is created in collaboration with Vietnamese animation studio Sparx, and its fictional world is inspired by Eastern locations such as Japan and Bali. The original score is composed by Jason Gallaty, who collaborated with Balinese ensemble group Gamelan Çudamani to create respectful gamelan music.

Announced in June 2020, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is scheduled for release in Q1 2021 for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5.

Gameplay

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an action-adventure game played from a third-person perspective. The player controls Kena, a young spirit guide with magical abilities. In combat, the player uses Kena’s staff for light, heavy, and charged attacks. An upgrade transforms the staff into a bow. When defending against enemies, the player can activate Kena’s pulse ability, which acts as a shield and has a health meter that depletes when attacked; it also serves to provide clues and activate objects.

The player is tasked with collecting small spirit companions known as the Rot. They can be directed to complete tasks, such as moving objects, taking certain shapes, or distracting enemies. The player must damage enemies before the Rot builds enough courage to join battles. The Rot can be customized with different hats. The game utilizes the DualSense controller’s haptic feedback for features such as Kena’s Spirit Bow.

Synopsis

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is set in a fictional location which is not Kena’s place of origin. The main village, which acts as the game’s hub world, is abandoned at the beginning of the game, having been struck by a tragedy hundreds of years earlier. Throughout the game, Kena restores the area to an improved state. In the game’s lore, deceased people can remain between the physical and spirit worlds if they are traumatized or feel unfinished. As a spirit guide, Kena tries to understand their difficulties and help them to move on.

Kena has a scar from her hand to her shoulder, which represents a traumatic experience with her father that will be explored in the game. Other characters include Saiya and Beni, two young children whose teenage brother, Taro, is a restless spirit who Kena helps.

Development

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is developed by Ember Lab, a 14-person independent studio based in Los Angeles. Founded in 2009 by brothers Mike and Josh Grier, the studio has worked on several animated commercials and branded game applications, and in 2016 released a viral short film based on The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask titled Terrible Fate. The development team felt that creating a video game was the “natural next step”. Along with a small team, Mike used his experience with programming to create a prototype over several years, before employing staff with more extensive development experience.

Once the prototype was complete, the team began pitching to potential publishing partners with assistance from industry veteran Tina Kowalewski. They found that several publishers were familiar with their work on Terrible Fate. Around eight months after their first round of pitching, Ember Lab signed a console-exclusive deal with Sony Interactive Entertainment. The team grew to 15 core employees, with additional help outsourced to other studios.

For the game’s art, Ember Lab partnered with Vietnamese animation studio Sparx. The team visited the studio in Vietnam early in development to ensure a smooth process. Lead environment artist Julian Vermeulen worked with both studios. An early prototype used the Unity game engine, but later shifted to Unreal Engine 4. The majority of development took place on PlayStation 4; the team was unsure if they would be provided a development kit for the PlayStation 5, but Sony eventually approved.

The team wanted to make a “rich experience” that could be completed in a weekend. The game’s fictional world is inspired by several Eastern locations, including Japan and Bali.

Earlier prototypes of the game focused on the Rot as antagonists, and did not feature Kena. When the team created Kena, she was initially younger—around seven or eight years old—but they felt that the story and themes required a more experienced and mature protagonist. She originally lacked many powers and relied more heavily on the Rot to complete tasks, which Mike Grier compared to the 2009 game A Boy and His Blob. After exploring more concepts, the team made Kena strong on her own, but more powerful when teamed with the Rot.

Lead character designer Vic Kun designed Kena’s appearance to match the world while also standing out. At one point, Kena had a long cape, but its animation was deemed too distracting and replaced with a shawl. Kun intended her clothes to feel asymmetrical, handmade, and practical. The symbols throughout the game are inspired by Japanese and South East Asian cultures. The game features music with vocals from Kena’s voice actress.

The game’s original score is composed by Jason Gallaty. Gallaty was listening to the music of Balinese ensemble group Gamelan Çudamani for inspiration, and reached out to seek a collaboration, wanting to remain respectful to the culture. Gamelan Çudamani’s associate director Emiko Saraswati was initially hesitant, not wanting traditional gamelan music to be featured in a video game, but agreed to collaborate after speaking to the team and resonating with the game’s themes.

Gallaty and Mike Grier traveled to Bali to record with the group. Gamelan Çudamani’s founding director, Dewa Putu Berata, created original compositions based on footage and descriptions of the game. When Gallaty presented samples of sacred music, Berata would inform him if it was inappropriate, and instead create a new composition with a similar feeling.

The game was announced on June 11, 2020, at PlayStation’s Future of Gaming event, with a scheduled for release in late 2020 for Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5. It is a timed console exclusive, and will release on Windows through the Epic Games Store. Players who purchase the PlayStation 4 version will be able to upgrade for free to the PlayStation 5 version. In September 2020, Ember Lab delayed the game to Q1 2021, citing development delays as a result of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In October 2020, former designer Brandon Popovich claimed that Ember Lab did not fully compensate him for his work on the game and failed to honour promises made regarding equity and a promotion; an anonymous source issued similar claims, accusing the company of unpaid overtime and unfulfilled promises of a full-time position. Ember Lab responded, claiming that it had records of all invoices being paid and denying any promises of equity or promotions.

Questions (And Answers) About Kena: Bridge Of Spirits

Who is Kena?
Kena is the hero of the game. More specifically, she’s a spirit guide – a person with a special gift who can help guide restless spirits to a peaceful end. In Kena: Bridge of Spirits’ lore, people who have suffered great trauma or who have unresolved business can linger between the physical and spirit world, causing trouble for ordinary (living) people. Kena’s job is to understand what’s keeping them from moving on and helping them reconcile past events.

Does that mean if she dies in the game she will live on in limbo as a restless spirit because she wasn’t able to help other spirits while she was alive? Unfinished business, and all?
Oh. That’s a good question. I have no idea how to answer that. Maybe ask something easier?

How do you pronounce her name?
It’s pronounced KAY-nuh. Whew!

Does Kena talk? 
Yep! Her voice acting wasn’t finalized in the demo, but Ember Lab’s chief creative officer, Mike Grier, told us that she has plenty to say. Kena is being played by an actress who also sings on
several of the soundtrack’s songs.

Where are we, anyway?
Bridge of Spirits is set in a fictional place that’s an homage to a variety of different Eastern locations. You’ll find nods to Japan, Bali, and other places in the geographic features and architecture. Kena’s not from the place she explores in the game, either. She had to travel quite a distance to get there. Mike jokes that she didn’t ride her bike over, to give you a sense of how far she’s come.

What’s up with those little guys we saw in the trailer?
Those are the Rot, and they’re an important part of the game – both in terms of gameplay and the story. As Kena travels around, she can find them hidden in the world (think hidden Toads in a Paper Mario game), and they’ll join her. That name isn’t just coincidental. They’re responsible for decomposing things, and the fact that they’ve been scattered is one of the reasons why this region has become tainted with corruption.

What can they do?
Lots of things! Outside of combat, Kena can direct them to move things around to help her. Can’t cross a big gap? Maybe they can pull a broken bridge back into shape temporarily. Can’t climb up to that ledge? They can maneuver a block into position and give her a boost. In combat, Kena can tap into the Rot to distract enemies or infuse her attacks with special power. The Rot are timid by nature, however, and players will have to build their courage by damaging enemies before they’ll enter the fight.

They can enter the fight? Uh oh. Can they die?
Nope! Mike doesn’t want players to see the Rot as a consumable resource; once you find a Rot, they’re part of the team forever. You don’t need to worry about digging tiny little graves or anything morbid like that.

What can Kena do?
She can do lots of things. Besides using her staff’s basic light, heavy, and charged attacks, she can get an upgrade that bends the staff and turns it into a bow. On defense, she can use a pulse ability to create a bubble-like shield around her. It has its own health meter, which gets depleted by enemy attacks. If she times its activation correctly, it will stagger enemies and make them more susceptible to attack.

Some of that sounds kind of familiar. Is this like a 3D Zelda?
If you got those kinds of vibes from the trailer, you’re not far off. There’s definitely a 3D Zelda influence in the game, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering an earlier Ember Lab project.

Is there any kind of character customization?
We didn’t see Kena put on different clothing or get any cosmetic upgrades during our demo. Players can outfit the Rot with a variety of different hats, however. Those can be found in the world, and players can purchase hats for individual members of the Rot crew by spending gems that are also found in the world.

Are there microtransactions?
No.

That sounds really cute. Is there going to be a way for me to capture how adorable my team looks?
If you’re asking about a photo mode, the team shares your enthusiasm. Josh says the studio wants to include such a mode, but they can’t say whether that feature will make it in time for launch or if it would come via a later update.

What engine did they build this with?
Weird question, but Ember Lab built Kena: Bridge of Spirits with Unreal 4. An earlier prototype was built in Unity, but development shifted over to Unreal.

Is this an open-world game?
Nope! You’ll encounter a village fairly early on in the game, and that serves as a hub. From there, you can travel to several connected regions. Think of it as being wide linear. There are secrets to find and things to discover off the main path, but it’s not an open-world game.

What is the advantage of PS5 vs PS4?
We only saw the game running on PlayStation 5, so we can’t offer any side-by-side comparisons, but there are differences between the PS4 and PS5 versions. One of the most notable is the number of Rot that you’ll see onscreen. On PS5, all of them can be visible simultaneously. On PS4, you’ll still be able to collect all 100 of them in the world, but you’ll see fewer of them at a time. They won’t be any less effective in combat or during puzzle solving, but there won’t be as many of them visible at once. Also, the forests and overall foliage is denser on PlayStation 5.

How long is it?
It’s tough to put an exact number on this, because of the number of side activities, but Josh says they set out to make something players could comfortably finish over a weekend.

How much does it cost?
Kena: Bridge of Spirits isn’t going to be priced at $60. We don’t know the exact price yet, but it won’t cost as much as a traditional full-priced retail game. If you buy it on PS4, you can upgrade the game to PS5 at no additional cost, too.

It looks cute, but is it challenging?
Mike says the team has a lot of Sekiro and Soulsborne fans on the dev team, and while the game isn’t quite up to FromSoftware’s difficulty, players will be challenged on the highest setting. On the other end of the spectrum, enemies won’t be able to one-shot you in most difficulty settings; you’ll be able to sustain one final sliver of health to give you a fighting chance against tougher enemies. Ember Lab wanted to make a game that families could enjoy together, whether your family just wants to enjoy the story or is looking for tougher battles.

This all sounds good, but I don’t have a PlayStation. Am I out of luck? 
You’re not! It’s also coming to PC via the Epic Games Store. As for when, Ember Lab hasn’t nailed down a specific release date, but you can expect to be playing it within a few months from now.

What is Kena: Bridge of Spirits‘ story about?

“Kena, a young Spirit Guide, travels to an abandoned village in search of the sacred mountain shrine,” the official plot synopsis on the Epic Games Store says. “She struggles to uncover the secrets of this forgotten community hidden in an overgrown forest where wandering spirits are trapped.” Game Informer‘s cover story gives even more insight into this compelling narrative.

The demo referenced in the Game Informer story is set towards the start of the game, follows Kena as she fights evil spirits before coming across a village where she meets a pair of sibling spirits, Saiya and Beni. They are the young children that sport a fox mask on their backs like a backpack. Kena helps these siblings find and calm down the spirit of their brother Taro.

Helping spirits like this is apparently the focus in Kena: Bridge of Spirits, as Kena will encounter the family of spirits like this in every world that she visits. Saiya and Beni aren’t the only characters that accompany Kena, as she also has the help of The Rot, those cute black creatures that won over people’s hearts in the reveal trailer.

Kena can collect 100 different Rot wisps over the course of the game, though the first one she encounters takes the most prominent roles as the leader of the group. Each creature can also be customized with cute little hats to make them stand out. The Rot helps Kena as she not only helps several spirits but restores balance to her world after it has been corrupted. She’ll also take on Toshi, an evil spirit that’s still causing problems for Kena’s world.

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