I don’t indulge hype. Watching pre-release trailers and gameplay videos at any time other than E3 feels like watching someone scoffing birthday cake on any day other than their birthday. Unaccountably wrong, and I feel sorry for the small children whose party it was supposed to be. So for that reason I neither knew nor cared what Kena (HUURGH) Bridge of Spirits was when the review code dropped into my lap. But now, having played through it in full, one of those facts has changed. I now know what it is. This review is going to be a bit difficult for me, ‘cos I finished Kena (HUURGH) Bridge of Spigots on day two of the five days I had set aside for finishing it, and then spent the subsequent three days trying to beat my record for most whiteboard markers shoved up a single nostril. Definitely one of the shorter open world exploration games I’ve had to dodge roll through. So I’m already having trouble remembering it even before factoring in its utter forgettableness. Fortunately if I do start to struggle I can just bring to mind the character design, and the way those freakish gigantic eyeballs bore into my soul like those of a hungry barn owl to a timid field mouse.
The protagonist – presumably named Kena, but the Zelda games have confused this issue for decades – is one part Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn, one part Jade from Beyond Good and Evil and one part whatshername from Legend of Korra. Living in a classic example of “video game generic primitive spiritual society” that’s a little bit Viking and a little bit ancient Japan and just enough native American that it keeps insufferably bringing it up in social settings. Kena is a spirit guide who has come to a ruined village to help the ghosts of the newly dead move onto the next world by getting over the lingering embarrassment they feel about whatever poorly thought out wank accident claimed their lives, while at the same time getting to the bottom of the disaster that has filled the land with evil corrupt monsters and purging them with her nice good not corrupt magic. We know her magic is nice because it’s teal and white, while the monsters and the blobby things they hang around are red and black, and therefore corrupt. Smacks of profiling if you ask me. Oh sure, purging a forest grove of red blobby things and restoring a luxurious carpet of green grass is all very well until you get the bill for having to run the fucking sprinklers every morning.
Strike one against Kena: Sprinkle of Biscuits is that it’s not exactly effervescent with exciting new gameplay ideas. It’s a slightly Zelda-like – Zeldesque? – open world about going to the blobby red corrupted areas of the map in turn and restoring life and tealness to the land, generally by beating up a few angry corrupt things with some utterly bog standard combat featuring Mr. Light Attack, Mrs. Heavy Attack and their delightful children Dodge, Block and Parry, broken up with some puzzling here and some climbing around a highly selective sequence of highlighted ledges there. Strike two is that our engagement with the story takes a hit from Kena, the protagonist, not having any personal connection to events. Basically she’s a roaming janitor who’s come to sweep up someone else’s mess so she can put it on her CV or something. She meets a sequence of restless spirits and then after fighting a series of generic humanoid boss monsters stands off to one side with a slightly condescending look on her face as the spirits talk about all the very interesting things they did in the runup to their deaths and how it’s a shame Kena missed them, and now has to be in the middle of things bringing all the energy down with her general presence.
It probably sounds like I have an axe to grind, or at the very least a machete to twerk, for Kena: Smokey Bacon. But I really don’t. While it doesn’t do anything mind-blowingly well, it doesn’t really fuck anything up, either. For a modern open world game there’s surprisingly little extraneous bullshit – no multiple varieties of meaningless collectibles, no elaborate action set pieces, no equipment system to let you trade out your +.7% licorice damage Legend of Korra costume for a +1.2% elbow stamina Legend of Korra costume identical but for slightly longer turn-ups. None of that. Just a rather bare and autumnal upgrade tree and everything wrapped up in two gameplay sessions. It’s refreshing, at least. Just not the sort of thing you write fan fiction about or aggressively defend in the Youtube comments of video reviews by people who couldn’t give two pumps of a secondhand fleshlight for your opinion. And the lack of upgrades or equipment does present the problem of having little with which to reward the player for exploring and doing side stuff. The solution the designers hit upon for that was hats. Possibly after being bitten by a radioactive Team Fortress 2.
There’s these tiny adorable potato men who fuel Kena’s special attacks and who hang around staring at her like dogs when you linger near the treat cupboard, and half the time the only thing hidden chests contain are little hats for your potatoes to wear. I wouldn’t mind this if all the optional chests contained hats, then I would know not to fucking bother with side stuff at all because I’ve got better things to do than play Tater Tot dress up, but when you take on a tough challenge hoping for upgrade points or extra potato men and come away with nothing but a root vegetable sized Tam O’Shanter it’s hard not to feel a little bit kicked in the spuds. But that’s more of a minor fingerling issue than a great big deal breaking King Edward. As I say, there’s nothing particularly wrong with Kena: Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, which is probably why the couple of things I do find irksome stand out all the stronger like choking hazards in my morning porridge. And the biggest, most notable fishhook in the oatmeal for me, and I stress this might just be a me thing, is the character design.
They’ve gone for a Disney Pixar inspired look so everyone’s got that Elsa from Frozen face, with the manipulative doe-eyes so gigantic that if you intend to get lost in them you should probably pack at least twelve days’ worth of provisions. And the chubby cheeks and tiny noses and slightly unsettlingly realistic hair and constant lopsided condescending expression like they’re expecting the photo for the movie poster to be taken at any moment and the general look like they’ve just been through Jeff Goldblum’s wonky teleporter with a gerbil. Who in turn had just gone through Jeff Goldblum’s wonky teleporter with a balloon animal. This is an art style that suits goofy family musicals about friendship not the humourless po-faced psychopomp shit going on here. You look at their feet and slowly track upwards and your brain goes “Normal proportions, normal proportions, normal proportions, JESUS FUCKING CHRIST the gerbil got into the helium cupboard.” Yeah, I’m probably harping on it too much now but its constant presence was a little burrowing terrier in the back of my head for the entire experience, constantly holding me back from fully engaging with it. As I say, this might be a me thing. I am, by all accounts, a miserable bastard. I broke up with my last ex for maliciously excessive smiling. That’ll teach me to stop going out with dolphins.