The cute game that I fell in love with that ended up kicking my ass 100 times over. Each beating more worth it than the last.
I wanted to wait a week before sitting down and writing this review mostly so I could give my brain (and more importantly, hands) a rest after hammering through the game and all its difficulties for about a week straight. It ended up being an emotional ride through each playthrough, ranging from awe to angst, but I have to stand by that it was well worth the trouble to try and do the game properly or as I personally like to say, how the developers meant it to be played.
On my initial playthrough of the game, I got to experience the story for what it is. A beautifully animated game that follows Kena as she searches for lost souls and helps them move on. Going into this, I was well aware that the schtick to it all was that an animation studio made a game, and while it did show, I wouldn’t say it was in a bad way. The gameplay still felt good, maybe a little clunky here and there, but definitely done better than studios that thrive on being solely game developers. The cutscenes are where you could see Ember Lab shine. At points, you could almost guess that you were watching a Pixar movie between the gameplay and it’s really where the heart and emotion came in. After Kena’s final interaction with Taro, I really got excited to see where the game would go since that scene alone setup the story for the potential to be something more than just another drab gaming experience.
I would be doing a slight disservice to the gaming community if I didn’t go into further detail about the “clunky” comment regarding the gameplay. It’s not so much the game itself, but more so the combat. The combat system is very much on the strategic side, which would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that at points the controls felt heavy. You can’t go into this game button mashing your way to victory, which I think is one of the biggest mistakes people made. If you smash square 5 times when you only want it once, the game will try to complete the square action 5 times, so you really need to be patient with it all. My biggest gripe out of everything is that the combat system overall makes a pretty big emphasis on parrying and how beneficial overall it can be, yet executing a parry was far more difficult than it should’ve been. It got to the point where I just stopped trying to do it because I was wasting my shield and HP trying to time it perfectly. Luckily, you can get by without it, so it’s not an “end of the world” situation, I would’ve just liked to see a more forgiving take on timing with a move that is so highlighted. How exact you need to be with your attacks and defenses is most likely why a lot are calling this a souls-like game, but I can’t agree that it is. There are features that came about in the Souls games that are missing here and just because a game might be difficult doesn’t mean it’s a souls-like game. Kena isn’t easy, but it’s far from a Souls game. The only other complaint I have is in regards to the camera. Combat assist and attack assist camera are turned on by default and on the lower difficulties, I felt these helped with cleaning up adds and focusing on the bosses, but on Master, they got in the way a painful amount of times and just made already difficult fights even more so. I ended up just turning them off and after that, I was able to navigate and plan my attacks much better, so if you find yourself struggling, definitely turn those off.
After completing the game the first time, the dreaded Master difficulty was unlocked. At the time of playing, the exploit for patch 1.05 was available, but me being the stubborn nugget I am, I wanted to at least give it a try and complete it legitimately. A day into it, the game was patched to remove the exploit, so even if I wanted to go back and use it, it was too late. I accepted my fate and pushed on. For about 20 hours, I got my ass absolutely handed to me. The increase in difficulty was unexpected, but oddly welcomed. You definitely have to work for it and give it your all to get through Master, but it became more and more rewarding after each fight was done. Taking down the Corrupt Rot God actually caused my hands to shake uncontrollably and my heart to race beyond measure because I couldn’t believe it was done. After hours of attempts, hours of switching up strategies, hours of restarting a rather long fight just to barely get into it before failing again… all of the frustration, all of the unladylike words, all of the pacing… it all became worth it at that moment and I understood why the developers didn’t put in NG+ and why they wanted us to complete the game first. I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed the game for what it was without that first run where you can just enjoy the story. Master takes such a toll on you that the first run is absolutely needed. A lot of people will be and are turned off by not being able to choose Master from the start, but I really felt like that was the right approach.
The trailers, the clips, the marketing, and everything included under that umbrella will tell you that Kena is adorable, which of course, it very much is. The Rots add for a bit of a break in all the corruption in the game and being able to dress them up in a variety of different hats definitely helped. But just because a game is cute doesn’t mean it’s easy, and I really can’t reiterate that enough. It was like going to see UP for the first time and not being prepared for your heart to be ripped out of your chest in the first 10 minutes because you thought “this is a cute movie”. Sometimes the unexpected is what makes something special and I do think that happened here. They could’ve easily gotten away with making an easy game that’s fun for the whole family, but instead make a game that is very easy on the eyes, but challenges gamers in ways they’re not prepared for. It was an overall well done balance of deception. Completing the game on Master is required for Platinum, so for those trophy hunters out there looking to add Kena to their list of completions, just be prepared to put some time and effort into it. It’s ok to struggle, just as long as you don’t give up, and I think that was a really good message for Kena to send.
- Beautiful animation sequences and overall a clean game
- The soundtrack is very fitting and some of the boss themes are some of the more memorable pieces I’ve heard in games in a while (emphasis on the Corrupt Woodsmith)
- The Rots added a nice comedic effect and allowed you to escape into Photo Mode if things got too stressful
- The combat makes you work for it and doesn’t hold your hand
- An easy to follow story that has nice pacing from start to finish
- Easily navigable environments and a really forgiving fast travel system
- The difficulty jump from Expert to Master while I found was worth it, is quite a gnarly jump that can make or break the game for players
- The parry system is just all over the place
- The collectibles felt a little tedious at times and half of them being required for upgrades means you have to pick them up twice due to no NG+, though it does go by much quicker the second time around
- Not so much a con, but not a pro either. I would’ve liked to see an autosave system for the Corrupt Rot God (final boss). This fight can easily take 10-15+ minutes so having to start over each time can start to feel demoralizing.
Overall, I really enjoyed my experience with this game. Even if at times I felt my skill level was no where near what it needed to be to progress forward, it’s up to you to learn what you need to do to get by and I think there’s something special about that. Looks may be deceiving in this case, but it ended up being a memorable game not only for the beautiful story, but for the sense of accomplishment it provides once you’re all done.
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