What would a legitimate “dark” Legend of Zelda game look like? I don’t mean a game made by another studio that copies Zelda concepts while adding violence, cursing, or gothic architecture—we’ve seen plenty of those. I’m more curious how Nintendo itself might craft a 3D, “E-10” rated adventure—full of magical melee combat, puzzles, charm, and meticulous art direction—that somehow takes the series into a more sinister direction.
My praise for this week’s Kena: Bridge of Souls, the first-ever game from Ember Lab, is that it is as close to that pitch as I’ve seen since the Zelda series revolutionized the 3D adventure genre. This new, 15-hour series premiere is exhilarating, accessible, cute, gorgeous, ominous, and above all, touching.
K:BoS doesn’t necessarily exceed what we got from Nintendo’s 2017 classic Breath of the Wild, and its occasional slip-ups and issues are firm reminders that its creators are a bit green. But there’s something special here, in a debut game that most studios would kill to launch as their third or fourth game.
Gather ’round for a jubjub?
Kena: Bridge of Spirits [PS4, PS5, PC]
Ember Lab’s debut game embraces the core of what makes Zelda games special, yet it finds unique magic by reimagining Nintendo’s tunic-clad hero as a supercharged, teenaged grim reaper. The Zelda-adjacent elements shouldn’t come as a surprise: the studio tested Nintendo’s command of IP law with a 2016 CG animation video that loudly features characters from Zelda: Majora’s Mask . Unsurprisingly, K:BoS looks quite similar to that video.
When the game first emerged during a PlayStation 5 reveal event last year, Ember Lab’s origins as a CGI animation house and its prior homage to a single Nintendo series set of as many alarm bells as you can imagine. I view gorgeously rendered game trailers with suspicion—a pretty game is not the same as a good one. And I’ve seen plenty of Zelda clones. But a hands-on K:BoS preview earlier this summer boosted my hopes, while the final product has done even more.
At K:BoS‘s outset, the titular Kena emerges from a cave to discover a mostly deserted village. Poisonous vines cover an otherwise empty town square, and desolate forests, mountains, and rivers stretch across the horizon in every direction. The exceptions are two children and a small, ink-black creature who follows you around. (The children—who are twins—call this Ewok-like blob a “Rot,” and they make clear that you’ll find more Rot if you pick through the game’s outskirts and corners.)
Rot will also warp ahead in order to pose adorably on the edges of a given trail.
The twins are named Beni and Saiya, and they want you to help them find their older brother. They magically vanish as they run away from you, only to reappear for a chat on the other side of a forest passage. This lines up with a few other magical things about Kena, including her glowing blue staff that can summon a magical shield and make various totems in and around the village light up a matching shade of blue. And when Kena notices any small, purple-glowing objects in the world, she can smack her staff onto the ground to uncover more Rot.
Kena soon learns she can use these Rot to deal with various problems in this grim village. For example, you may be approached by monsters, which usually consist of carved wood and gathered grass and mud that have been molded into bipedal, humanoid beasts. While engaging in combat, tap the appropriate button to make your Rot supercharge a slam of your staff, harvest a nearby healing berry for immediate consumption, or do other useful moves. (More on combat in a bit.)
Outside of battles, the Rot can gather, lift, and drop heavy objects a la Nintendo’s Pikmin. They can also temporarily combine into a powerful snake that slithers and slams into certain poisonous brambles, thus clearing your path. And sometimes, they walk or crawl up to items of interest in your general vicinity in order to get your attention. Rot will also warp ahead to pose adorably on the edges of a given trail, because, hey, why not.
Picking and choosing its storytelling battles
The twins’ request comes as a response to Kena’s mission: scaling the village’s ominous mountain and freeing the trapped spirit at the top. But Kena comes to learn that what befell this village was more than the work of a single dark entity. Helping the twins is a smaller, more manageable goal on the way to uncovering a larger tragedy from the past. This is why K:BoS makes me think of a “dark Zelda.”
I was consistently impressed by Ember Lab’s mastery of visual storytelling. Visual and nonverbal cues fill out the village as you explore everything from its forest glens to its seaside docks to its abandoned factory. The game’s “wide linear” approach does well to choreograph players’ transitions from one location to the next, but it still leaves you free to hunt for shiny collectibles. And you occasionally find clues tucked in hidden corners. But K:BoS doesn’t hide journal entries or other dumps of text. Stories sometimes emerge because Kena has broken down a wall of poisonous rot, thus exposing what the village looks like in the light of day. Or a ghost-filled illusion may appear after completing a puzzle to show what life used to look like in this place.
Full-blown cinematic scenes serve as guideposts between these exploratory moments, and goodness: if you’re looking for a happy-go-lucky adventure with zero serious feelings, go elsewhere. K:BoS benefits from having only a few big scenes, and even though its dialogue is serviceable at best, it still exceeds your average anime. The game really shines when it connects the dots between your adventure and the way the world was before you go here. You’re not just exploring a village—you’re exploring the lengths that its previous inhabitants went to in the name of love and hope.
Without spoiling the dots that K:BoS connects, I will say, with a tear in my eye, that I haven’t been this touched by a video game in some time. Hats off to Ember Lab for understanding how to join storytelling with interactivity in meaningful ways that don’t require tabbing out to a text-filled submenu.