Brisk battles and scenic splendours

MD Rodrigues

THE WASHINGTON POST – The most arresting video game environments of recent memory are those that evoke the serenity of the natural world. To be sure, that world is represented varyingly from game to game. But mostly, impressions of solitude abound, as in Death Stranding, with its lonely treks across mountains, grassland, and forested slopes.

The Senpou Temple of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is likewise secluded, and eerily so.

One discerns the sonorous chants of the temple’s corrupted monks and glimpses, beyond the closely gathered trees, their pillared monastery. And in the higher regions of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where Link flits about the pines, imminent dangers pale before the atmosphere that surrounds.

At such times the call of battle can feel oddly remote, so spellbinding are those virtual woods. Kena: Bridge of Spirits, a fantasy action-adventure game from the developer Ember Lab, aspires to a similar magic, though its style is more Zelda than Sekiro, and more Disney than Death Stranding. Its difficulty can be punishing, however, and it tells its own tale of the serenities – and the horrors – of nature. A plague has visited death and famine upon the game’s world, and has created a few villains in the process.

Kena, the protagonist, begins her adventure in the aftermath of that tragedy. A good-hearted spirit guide, she is grieving her late father and hopes to find solace at the hallowed Mountain Shrine.

The staff Kena wields once belonged to her father. Like her pendant necklace, and the scars on her hands, it is luminous with the blue energy of the Mountain Shrine.

Fantasy action-adventure game ‘Kena: Bridge of Spirits’. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST/EMBER LABS

The land had been nourished by that same energy, but something changed. “Like all things, the Mountain Shrine follows a natural cycle,” explains one character.

Before Kena can approach the mountain, she must travel through forests, fields and spiritual portals. Her principal task is to battle three corrupted spirits who are resisting the pull of the Spirit Realm.

In the lead-up to each battle, Kena collects relics that figured importantly in the mortal lives of these spirits. She learns of the woes that have moored them to the world. And in the wake of each battle, when the spirits are free of the mysterious corruption that had transformed their minds and bodies.

Kena sympathetically acknowledges their grief or regret. She speaks to them in placating tones and inspires them to move on at last.

The narrative also gestures toward the idea that nature – a source of power and caprice – requires our knowledgeable stewardship and patient reverence. But in its rush to pathos, the storytelling can register as hollow and laboured. And the dialogue too often reiterates the themes in plainly declarative ways.

In many other games, pots and barrels are but doomed piñatas, awaiting the strike of sword or fist. But here containers yield their contents whenever Kena stands before them and gently raps her staff upon the ground. Other items are hefted up by the Rot, and handled with care. “Can you move that?” Kena kindly queries when the player activates the Rot icon that accompanies interactive objects. She encounters overturned animal statues; the Rot help them back on their feet. The game therefore directs its solicitude not just toward the natural world but also scattered objects and heirlooms, some of which Kena returns to the homes of their deceased owners.

These bits of quiet ceremony are a more elegant expression of theme than the talkative cutscenes.

The game thrums along well enough during most battles, including the grandiose and unexpectedly arduous final boss fight – a six-stage ordeal in which failure typically sends the player back to stage one.

The frame rate is adequate, but dips noticeably at times. Kena’s character model also froze on two occasions. Earlier save files were the only recourse. Other encountered issues include, but are not limited to, the volume of the dialogue shifting erratically, and Kena getting stuck in the first-person view of a spiritual mask. The game can run unimpeded by glitches for long stretches, but more fine-tuning is clearly needed.

Kena is Ember Lab’s debut game, but they have experience artistically adapting the styles and sensibilities of other properties. They have animated commercials for corporations, for example, and created a popular tribute to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. For better or worse, their knack for adaptation is also evident in Kena’s gameplay, which brings to mind Pikmin, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and the recent God of War, among other games.

On those merits, Kena isn’t especially inventive, but the game is an entertaining hodgepodge of tried and true ideas.

A sense of déjà vu certainly emerges. But one scarcely notices it during the brisk battles, or amid the splendours and astonishments of the enveloping forests.