This was meant to be about Deathloop. Deathloop, one of the tentpole releases of the season from the master immersive sim engineers at Arkane, released confusingly by Xbox owned Bethesda as a timed PS5 exclusive, Deathloop!
Deathloop is a riotous, slapstick, stylish thriller with a science fiction core, set on a gorgeous, Hebridean-like island. Players are asked to first understand, then resolve, the titular time loop by exploring it over and over, learning more about the loop and its puppet masters each time, before ultimately kicking them all off a cliff in the most expedient way possible.
Clues to achieving this are ascertained by visiting the island’s four densely constructed regions at different times of the single repeatable in-game day and witnessing, reading and listening to snippets of privileged information uncovered by your curiosity and willingness to explore. It’s important too to build up your arsenal using the games stored curren…. look, Deathloop is exhausting.
Deathloop is an incredible piece of game design, a domed carriage clock with its polished guts rotating proudly for all to see, but faced with the sheer exertion of compiling mental files on its various locales, characters, times of day, set pieces, weapon systems, and asymmetrical multiplayer concepts; some days you just want to play a game like Kena: Bridge of Spirits.
In 2010 Kena would have been described as an action adventure game. The loose definition of that genre has shifted over time, but Kena is action adventure cut from the cloth of the original Xbox/PS2 era; games that were necessarily hemmed in with unscalable shrubs and piles of debris to hide the fact that large scale open worlds were not technically feasible. Kena does expand on that template: map regions utilise non linearity and include spaces both broad and tall, but the drum beat of heading to an area to overcome the set of obstacles within it and move on persists throughout.
Kena tells a simple story of ecology and its characters’ relationship with the world they inhabit, including several vignettes focusing on area specific characters and their personal histories, which in turn weave back into the wider narrative. Some of these character arcs achieve poignance or sadness, but the story remains fairly lightweight and unobtrusive.
Kena does several things well. It has melee and ranged combat, but don’t expect Dark Souls. It has environmental gadget driven puzzles, but it’s no Breath of the Wild. It has a semi open world to explore, but it’s definitely not Deathloop. It’s the first full game from developer Ember Lab, and the studio’s background in creating CGI shorts, including an unofficial Majora’s Mask reel that grabbed headlines on its release, is apparent throughout. Facial animations and animation quality in general contribute in no small way to shaping the game’s identity, and much of the gratification that comes from playing Kena is tied up in the fun of watching just what happens with each button press: double jumps spin with spritely momentum, and Kena’s charged attack summons her elastic companions The Rot to her hammerhead in a satisfying, spiraling lunge.
Those animations, and the general level of polish applied to the game are welcome but do not hide, nor seek to, the relative simplicity involved in the tasks the game asks of you. Your enjoyment of Kena will rest almost entirely on how you feel about playing a game that is visually contemporary but mechanically retrogressive. The games biggest misstep is perhaps the presumption that players will find The Rot, the companion characters that Kena collects throughout the game and that follow her around in an ever increasing swarm, to be irresistibly cute. In reality they’re weirdly bland, like somebody asked Dreamworks to redesign Spirited Away’s coal sprites; out with any sense of strangeness or interesting locomotion, in with big shiny eyes.
If this all reads like a shopping list of things you can do in a video game, it’s because there is a sense to some extent that this is how Kena was pulled together. The joy in playing out these unremarkable actions comes from the sheer coherence of Kena’s simple moveset, visual opulence, and clear structure. On measure, is Deathloop the better game of the two? Probably, yet the thought of firing up Deathloop & remembering how to properly construct a loadout is anxiety inducing versus the alternative of a quick, crunchy roll through one or two of Kena’s plainly signposted objectives.
Why does anyone invest the hours it takes to complete a video game in 2021? Outside of specific qualitative traits such as a good story, satisfying mechanics or striking visual design – we might agree that the point, as with all play, is pleasure and relaxation. It’s exciting that the grammar of games now encompasses such a broad a range of pleasure that both Grindstone and Valorant can happily find a dedicated audience, but there is an inarguable distinction in the effort required to enjoy those two games, and when life pulls our attention and energy in a variety of competing directions, it can be that the mechanical satisfaction inherent to the former trumps the high level strategising and twitch accuracy demanded by the latter; we don’t need the medium to regress to some croatoan ideal of simplicity, but sometimes we personally just want to chill out.
So was the case with Kena. Released one week after Deathloop, and offering a complete counterpoint to that game in terms of its goals and scope. It’s possible to spend two hours with Deathloop and leave with a longer to-do list than when you began. Conversely, spend 30 minutes with Kena and you’ll likely have cleared a village of enemies, solved a simple puzzle, or explored a secret passageway; you will know that you have achieved something when, sandwiched between your daily obligations and your ailing free time, you choose to Save & Quit. This will take you back to the title screen, are you sure? Yes.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits created by Ember Lab is available now on PlayStation platforms and Windows
Words: Luke Jackson