Kena: Bridge of Spirits is out this week and, unsurprisingly, its Princess Mononoke-style spirits are adorable as all hell. Unfortunately, they’re also one of the most annoying things I’ve found in a video game this year.
Let’s get the basics out of the way. Ember Lab’s inaugural adventure stars Kena, a spirit guide, who wanders a corrupted forest bringing it back to life. Along the way you’ll encounter plenty of cute creatures called Rot, which help your journey in all sorts of ways: stunning enemies in combat, flipping random statues, moving crap out of the way and just generally hanging around Kena like she’s their mother.
About half of the Kena: Bridge of Spirits experience is dealing with environmental puzzles, and for a lot of those you’ll need to deploy the Rot. The stuff where they have to move things isn’t too bad — occasionally the AI pathing will get stuck on the corner of a rock or a bit of wood or some random object, but for the most part it’s fine.
What’s really annoying is the times when corruption is involved. As you journey throughout the forest, you’ll encounter these flowers with a shining orb:
Using these plants transforms the rot into their original form, an amorphous, wolf-looking like blue blob that can be used to take out various bits of corruption.
Now, principally, that’s fine. It’s a simple, neat little puzzle mechanic. The issue is the way Ember Lab has designed how you control the blob. Once your cute little woodland spirits transform into Blue Wolf, you then have to manually control their movement by moving the camera. If you’re on the controller, that’s by pushing the right stick. If you’re on mouse and keyboard, as a lot of PC users are, that’s by moving the mouse.
And if that immediately seems it might be frustrating, I can confirm it is absolutely as annoying as you think it might be.
The physical experience of swinging the Rot side to side or making several, dragging motions towards your character is nothing short of mechanically unpleasant. Rather than giving you free camera control and movement, like when the Rot is moving a statue, Kena locks in place around the current location of the Rot in their amorphous form.
You’ll encounter this design frequently throughout your 8 to 10-ish hours with Kena, because it’s one of its most common puzzle mechanics. But I don’t understand why Ember Lab didn’t just have the Rot move to a location that you can control. It would be less helpful in combat — but the amount of instances where you’re actually using the Rot to fight enemies this way is very, very rare.
Instead, you’ll mostly just be enduring these long, painful sequences of getting the Rot to where you want them to go. Compared to how smooth and frictionless the rest of the Kena experience is, these segments are a real eyesore. The movement’s a little janky. The controls are frustrating. Your time is spent not thinking about what you want to happen, but dragging NPCs from one spot to another.
You can actually picture the pain in the GIF above. Watch how the Rot occasionally stops as it moves from point to point. That’s where I’ve obviously reached the limit on my mouse pad. and need to pick up the mouse so I can swipe further. There’s no direction in which this movement isn’t deeply frustrating: either repeated pushes forward, swipes left or right, or dragging the mouse back. It’s all pretty rough, although I’d still prefer to play the game with mouse and keyboard because of the archery mechanics and targeting weak points in combat.
And for a bit of bonus annoyance? A lot of the time the reward at the end of these sequences isn’t actually a reward: it’s unlocking a shrine that grants you crystals for buying hats. For your tree spirits.
I’ll have full thoughts on Kena: Bridge of Spirits soon, but I wanted to call out this part of the Rot — who are adorable, cuddly and a genuine highlight in almost all other ways. It’s just that the act of actually manoeuvring them is so foreign to the rest of the Kena experience that it almost serves as a microcosm of the whole experience. I definitely wouldn’t say don’t play Kena because of this, but you absolutely should be aware of it.