Title: Kena: Bridge of Spirits - [ reviewed on PS5 with a digital copy provided by Ember Lab ]
Every game studio has to start somewhere and for Ember Lab, the 14-strong team founded in California by brothers Josh & Mike Grier, that maiden voyage has been with Kena: Bridge of Spirits, a story-driven action game with fantasy inspired CGI visuals that is just perfect for photo mode.
Originally formed as an animation studio with previous work including the acclaimed fan film Majora's Mask - Terrible Fate and the award winning sci-fi fantasy story, Dust, the prospect of what this group of talented storytellers could create in the immersive world of video games has always been a fascinating one. The fact that the team seems to value artistic and technical development in equal measures means that the result is at times, magical; as though the goal was to make players feel like they were experiencing the pure vision of the original concept art. I mean, just look at this comparison between original concept and final design shared by the team...
Reminiscent of Southeast Asia with plenty of influences from Buddhist rituals, the rich forests and mystical mountain shrines that surround the overgrown shell of a rural village provide a beautiful setting for the game's tale. Playing as title character Kena, you are taken with her on a journey of discovery to find out what happened to the once-populous settlements and to help several trapped spirits to shed their burdens and finally move on.
It is a circle of life narrative and one that neatly gives rise to the outrageously adorable Rot who, as well as aiding in the decay of the dead, also lend Kena a helping hand with a few magical powers and abilities that mix up the gameplay in combat while also forming the basis of some environmental puzzles.
Things that work to make Kena an enjoyable debut title...
Being a first title from a new studio, there are plenty of tried and tested mechanics on show here. Things like the traversal along marked cliff edges, the combination of staff & bow in combat, or the stasis-based abilities to gain a time advantage may all seem familiar in one way or another, and even the already iconic Rot clearly owe a lot to Pikmin, but it makes perfect sense. Innovative or otherwise, these are things that work to make Kena an enjoyable debut title and to criticise it for a reliance on established conventions seems a little like criticising a new car for using seats, wheels and a windscreen.
That is not to say that there are no flaws though. The timing-sensitive combat in particular seems to suffer from the fact that each well crafted animation will prevent a further action input until it has completed. It is something that can lead to missed parries and wasted attacks as an intended action doesn't register when you expect it to, making some encounters trickier that they otherwise should be, especially on the more challenging difficulties.
- COMBAT BLOW // KENA: BRIDGE OF SPIRITS -
Don't let that put you off though, it is always possible to drop the difficulty down to Story Mode for an experience that lets you enjoy Ember Lab's gorgeous presentation and take full advantage of its rather novel photo mode. A photo mode that we had to wait until the very last moment to hear about with it only being revealed on the final day before launch, but that surprise was very welcome indeed. So are the tools exactly the sort of thing photographers need to take advantage of the game's artistically inspiring content? Let's find out...
Key Photo Mode Features:
Free camera movement with generous range
Authentic depth of field & bokeh rendering
Controls & Implementation:
Pulling up the photo mode in Kena: Bridge of Spirits is as simple as it is customisable thanks to the ability to remap any of the controls to suit your preference. Assigned to D-Pad Up by default, the shortcut binding can be moved to any other individual button (excluding the Touchpad) to ensure that it is always conveniently at hand.
Once open, the photo mode greets users with what is one of the most minimal user interfaces around, with a camera composition mode that shows nothing more than a control legend, and a simple list of settings visible while camera movement is disabled. Minimal though it may be, there is unusually no way to fully hide the UI for a totally unobstructed view, something that is distracting when trying to finesse the composition.
Instead, the photo mode relies on the use of R1 as a virtual shutter release button to briefly hide the on-screen display while saving the underlying image as a compressed JPG. Though this capture method may be familiar to PC-based photographers, it does rather go against the grain on PS5 and means that the dedicated Create button will always capture the overlaid UI, and that the ability to use the superior PNG format is lost.
A little of Ember Lab's animated magic is able to creep in...
Much more standardised, the camera controls provide lateral truck & dolly movement on the LS, vertical craning with the L2 / R2 triggers, and complete 360° pan & 180° tilt on the RS for good compositional freedom overall. A range-limiting bounding sphere is in place and indicated by a slightly off-putting full screen flash, but the permitted range of movement is useful and helps to enable a broad variety of shots in combination with the powerful optical zoom.
Frustratingly, the vertical tilt ignores the in-game preference for an inverted y-axis, but at least the previously omitted camera roll has since been added in update v1.11. Unlike when the game initially launched, it is now possible to take full-resolution shots in portrait orientation and of course to add a little angle to a composition to create more dynamic combat shots rather than being stuck on a permanently horizontal angle.
- FRAMING // KENA: BRIDGE OF SPIRITS -
Despite the odd niggle, the photo mode in Kena covers the basics well enough to allow creative exploration of the scenes, and that is before we get to what it its most prized feature. In combat or while performing any animated task, the tools here may be much like any other with the game frozen in a static moment. However, let Kena and her companions relax in a more idle setting and a little of Ember Lab's animated magic is able to creep in...
Where available, the option to toggle between Freeze and Action modes not only enables environmental details to move and flow, not unlike Ghost of Tsushima it has to be said, but also makes all friendly characters become suddenly aware of the camera and follow its movement like a universal "look to cam" option.
- SAY CHEESE! // KENA: BRIDGE OF SPIRITS -
This is useful for engaging or redirecting character eyelines, and also activates the otherwise greyed out selection of static poses found in the Settings list, but it is the novel Cheese! button that really tops things off. Just like shouting "say cheese!" to a group of friends as you ask them to smile for a real photo, hitting X will see Kena, the Rot, and any nearby NPC's strike a selection of animated poses and hold them with a smile while you snap away.
Being randomised, it adds variety to group shots and is a brilliant feature that absolutely feels in keeping with the personality of the game. One that you have to expect that we might start to see implemented in a similar way in other photo modes going forwards.
At this point, it is worth picking up on that matter of portrait shots again and, although roll is now available, there is a little something to sweeten things if you would prefer not to twist your neck through 90° to look at the screen. As part of both the portrait and square frame crops, and using the current aperture value as a starting point, the photo mode will automatically exaggerate the depth of field effect to enhance the background defocus for a classical portrait look.
Think of it like the simulated bokeh modes that appear on a lot of smartphone cameras these days; a convenient, no-fuss option that encourages even inexperienced users to go for intimate shots of Kena and her many photogenic companions.
- AUTO BOKEH // KENA: BRIDGE OF SPIRITS -
Indeed, many of the available features aim to make it easy to tweak a shot and take advantage of the content without too much technical involvement. A capable exposure slider makes obvious adjustments to the image brightness, and a small selection of colour filters provide some alternative looks, although with no way to fade in the effect, the vibrant CGI visuals of the standard view are often best.
With a bit more flexibility, a trio of optical effects add some photographic flaws including a standard oval vignette, realistic film grain for low-light authenticity, and chromatic aberration that splits the RGB colour channels for that low-fi lens look. Whether you choose to use them or not, their simple implementation means that you won't spend too long thinking about it.
- EFFECTS // KENA: BRIDGE OF SPIRITS -
The same goes for a straightforward auto-focus system that will attempt to lock onto whatever is at the centre of the screen with a press of R3. Although some sort of targeting reticule would help to communicate the feature, it is a useful addition that aids quick composition, albeit not always a 100% accurate one.
For those who prefer manual control, more precise focus adjustment can be achieved with D-Pad Left / Right, while aperture f/stop values can be changed to your liking whether using the portrait-oriented crops, the standard view or the cinematic wide format. In any case, the depth of field is highly authentic and renders defocused light sources with a beautiful 7-blade aperture bokeh with professional style.
- POST-RENDER ARTEFACTS // KENA -
For all of the convenient tools and satisfying visual style though, there is a price to pay with Kena: Bridge of Spirits, and that price is quality. Levels of detail can drop quickly with distant views and certain post-rendering effects appear to cause significant artefacts that do the character models a serious disservice. For example, what looks like an anti-aliasing process or motion blur trying to interpolate the movement of Kena's hair, actually results in the smearing of it while frozen in the photo mode.
The Action mode does actually help here because, as soon as the animation is resumed, the post-render effects work as intended and the character models can be captured in much higher quality. It just means that they will always be looking directly down the lens to achieve it.
NOTE: The v1.11 patch notes do include "Improved quality and increased resolution of images captured with photo mode" but this does not appear to apply to PS5 and the above issue remains at the time of writing.
Technical imperfections aside, the gorgeous visual style of Kena: Bridge of Spirits means that it is no surprise that many elements translate directly into content that is well suited to virtual photography. Ember Lab's experience with quality CGI and cinematic storytelling is perhaps best exhibited in the well crafted cut scenes where careful lighting and camera shots offer plenty of stylistic inspiration, but it is the consistency with which the world is created that realises the photographic appeal.
Without aiming for photorealism and with a reliance only on natural in-game light, every element of the characters, the environment and the objects within it share a common style that results in a very cohesive look and enables the photo mode to capture believable visual art that can match the studio's own presentation.
The most immediate subjects that will command attention are of course, Kena and the delightful Rot that accompany her. While Kena herself has just the one outfit, the Rot, who grow in number and accessories as you progress through the game, can be adorned with all manner of hats and masks that only add to their already burgeoning personality. Personality that is at it natural best when using the Action and Cheese! functions.
While the group may combine in battle and puzzles to create some of the more magical effects in the game, their common interactions are a joy to watch and offer a friendly dynamic that is great fun to capture. Whether loyally surrounding Kena or making mischief in the environment, give the Rot a chance to strike a pose and they will waste no time in showing why they are arguably the stars of the show.
- STRIKE A POSE // THE ROT -
Maybe some of the other characters would argue there, given that they are each rendered with the same loving style as the title lead and have their own personal slices of life to share with the camera, but the problem is that many of them appear all too briefly. With no chapter select and a limited number of manual save slots, the opportunities to photograph some of the more interesting individuals can be surprisingly fleeting.
The same goes for the series of mini-bosses and corrupted spirits who each offer unique visual cues but, once defeated will require you to start a new game to revisit them. It is worth taking these opportunities while they are there though because, even without camera roll, Kena is actually great for combat shots. Partly this comes from the interesting enemy design and often beautiful battle arenas, but also it is thanks to the ability to create highly cinematic look that can make the shots appear as though they came straight out of a CGI movie.
- IN COMBAT // KENA: BRIDGE OF SPIRITS -
In keeping with the story, the world in which Kena exists is also a huge element of what will help to make a connection with both players in the game and photographers in the photo mode. Evolving from corrupted blight to idyllic land as you play, that idea of being immersed in a living art concept really does carry across and the painting-like scenery, along with remnants of a past civilisation give plenty of options and inspiration.
For anyone ready to embrace it, the spiritual fantasy that is so integral to the game itself, affords the freedom to imagine and elevates the potential to explore shots with a little extra meaning, whether through a connection to nature, ritualistic beliefs or a metaphor for overcoming difficulties. Failing that the enjoyable combat and friendly group dynamics are reason enough to visit anyway.
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While there may be some technical limitations when it comes to outright quality, that is not what a game like Kena: Bridge of Spirits is about. The creative style of the game makes it almost ready-made for virtual photography and can make it easy for people to feel like they are experiencing the vision of its creators as well as capturing their own.
With the essential tools covered, the uncomplicated options create an accessible route into virtual photography while the novel way in which the game's inhabitants react to the camera makes for a two-way experience that no other photo mode can currently match.