In Kena: Bridge of Spirits, everyday items are imbued with new, unseen emotional significance. A wooden mask is a link to the spirit of the person for whom it was made. Objects like a construction hammer or a box filled with food are tied to memories of people who have been lost. Locations that were once the sites of vibrant and happy times are scarred with the pain and trauma suffered within them.
Looking at common things with new eyes is a running theme of Kena, and that theme often applies to its gameplay as well. Though the game is filled with some fairly common action-adventure genre tropes–it has melee combat that feels akin to titles such as Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order or even Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, climbing sections similar to Uncharted or Tomb Raider, platforming that recalls games such as Ratchet and Clank, and puzzles like what you might see in The Legend of Zelda–it manages to combine a familiar approachability with some fresh spins on the ideas. Combined with emotional, character-driven storytelling, some tough-but-excellent fights, and mechanics that make the world feel alive around you, Kena is an exciting, often heartbreaking journey that will make you want to explore every corner and crevice to see all that you can.
The story and world of Kena: Bridge of Spirits center on a village beset by tragedy. Its inhabitants are all gone, wiped out by misfortune, and their pain has physically poisoned the once-vibrant land around it. That pain has drawn Kena, a young spirit guide, to seek out the trauma at its center and heal it. Her link to the spirit realm allows her to help the ghosts of the village find peace, and in so doing, she’s able to push back the corruption that has gripped the land, restoring it to its former glory.
Like most good detective stories, Lost Judgment begins with the ghastly discovery of a maggot-infested corpse. A single homicide is merely the tip of the iceberg, of course, but the unusual circumstances surrounding the dead body’s discovery set the stage for another compelling mystery for private investigator Takayuki Yagami to solve. The first Judgment began in a similar fashion, presenting itself as a Yakuza spin-off that was nevertheless overly familiar due to its penchant for delving into the criminal theatrics Rya ga Gotoku Studio is known for. Yagami’s latest adventure still dips its feet into the deep end of the criminal underworld, but Lost Judgment distances itself from its Yakuza-flavored origins with much more regularity than its predecessor, resulting in a better and more distinct game that’s still tinged with an overt sense of deja vu.
This begins right from the off, as the first hour or so is spent traversing the well-worn streets of Kamurocho. Revisiting the bustling red-light district for the umpteenth time still doesn’t grow stale thanks to its lively atmosphere and intricate visual design. It’s a place full of fond memories and there’s a pleasant sense of comfort in its familiarity, yet it’s hard not to feel relieved when Yagami’s latest case takes you south of Tokyo and into the port city of Yokohama. The fictional district of Isezaki Ijincho was first introduced in last year’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon and makes its return in Lost Judgment relatively untouched. Based on the real-life Yokohama district of Isezakichō, it’s a bigger urban sprawl than Kamurocho but still maintains the same density, from the busy streets of Isezaki Road to the various storefronts and eateries located throughout the district.
Step through the automatic doors of a Poppo store and you’ll be greeted by a short electronic tune that announces your arrival. The magazine aisle is stacked with lifestyle magazines, manga, and cookbooks, while the refrigerators at the back of the store are filled with assorted snacks, from onigiri and Bento lunch sets to a dizzying array of drinks including Suntory green tea and BOSS coffee. Elsewhere, you can head to the bar district to find each cozy hangout stocked with real-world alcohol, while passing beneath the Paifang in Chinatown will lead you to restaurants adorned with dragons and golden guardian lions, as residents converse under a baroque pavilion.
Toem begins when your nana gifts you a camera as you head off to see the “Toem” phenomenon. She nearly shows you her own photo from when she did the same thing at your age, but hastily hides it. Seeing the Toem phenomenon is presented as a rite of passage, and something you really just need to experience for yourself. She never describes exactly what Toem is, just that it’s spectacular and life-changing. But maybe what she’s really remembering is the journey to see it.
Most of Toem is essentially a series of photo puzzles. When you first journey away from home, you learn that you can collect stamps on your community card by performing acts of kindness for townspeople (which almost always involve a camera, somehow) or fulfilling photo challenges. You might be asked to find a cartoonishly shady character hanging around town, or to point a lighthouse keeper in the direction of boats that need help using your zoom lens. Collecting enough stamps gets you a free bus pass to the next area. It’s a simple, clever construct that creates a broad space for different types of puzzle challenges.
All of this is presented in a stark black-and-white style that feels boldly minimalist. The view is isometric in a way that often limits your ability to see all of your surroundings, so you’ll look from behind the camera lens to get a better view of things. The interplay between these views is constant, and despite a sparse visual style and monochrome presentation, it never feels confusing. Everything is perfectly readable in both views, which is a testament to the strength of the art design.
The Artful Escape is a visual treat–a platforming journey that takes players on a journey from Earth to the galaxies beyond and renders every location with gorgeous care. Evoking a variety of influences, from the artist Charlie Immer to the bright aesthetics of Lisa Frank, The Artful Escape captures the sheer cinematic thrill of watching your helicopter explode in a Call of Duty mission or falling off a cliff in a Naughty Dog set-piece, but transplants the action to a voyage that goes far beyond the realm of the real. It’s gentler, too, telling a story about learning how to be who you really are, and not who someone else expects you to be. There’s no violence to be found here; just easygoing platforming, low-pressure musical riffing, and adventure gaming that goes heavy on the dialogue and omits the puzzles entirely.
As the game begins, you are Francis Vendetti, a teen in a leather jacket, chunky boots, and eyewear that could be steampunk goggles or the perfect circle glasses that John Lennon made iconic. Francis is sitting on a bench on a cliff and the first prompt we see instructs us “To strum a folk ballad about the toil of a miner’s life, hold X.” It’s immediately pretentious, and that’s intentional. Francis is the nephew of Johnson Vendetti, who is a legend in the world of The Artful Escape. In Calypso, the small town where Francis has lived his whole life, his uncle is a hometown boy who made good. But “Press X to sing about miners” is not who Francis is at all. It rings hollow (and it should) because Francis is attempting to be someone he isn’t. But his first performance as a musician is scheduled for tomorrow, and Francis will be expected to perform that false identity for everyone he knows. Francis will grow as a character over The Artful Escape’s six-hour runtime, but this gameplay will remain the same. You spend a lot of time in this game holding X to strum on your guitar.
Then Francis meets Violetta, a punky girl with a bad attitude and an Edna Mode haircut. Violetta seems to see something in Francis and tells him to seek out Lightman’s–ostensibly a store in Calypso. But Francis has lived in Calypso his whole life and knows there’s no such place. Doesn’t matter–Violetta is off and Francis heads home to get some sleep before his concert the next day. It turns out Francis didn’t need to find Lightman’s. Instead, Lightman, an aging musician voiced by Carl Weathers, comes to him, taking Francis to a spaceship called The Lung and sweeping him up in an intergalactic voyage. He promises Francis will be back in time to play his concert.
Lost in Random makes a poor first impression. The overly dark and dreary opening areas are disjointed, rushing through the setup in a confusing and off-putting manner. It feels like you’ve been dealt a dud hand. Persist, though, and the cards start falling into place. The deck-building strategic layer gradually settles until it successfully blends with the core action of the combat, and the world eventually reveals a much more interesting, brighter, more colorful and character-filled side. Lost in Random overcomes a rocky start to tell a genuinely affecting tale of friendship, sibling bonds, and the cruelty of inequality.
The world of Random is ruled by a capricious Queen who determines the fates of her subjects with a roll of the dice. Ones are left to labor in the working-class slums while Sixers are whisked off to the Queen’s castle in the clouds, their newfound societal elevation relieving them of the burden of ever again interacting with the poor. Even is a young girl living in Onecroft when her older sister, Odd, rolls a six and they become separated. Even is rightly suspicious of the Queen and so sets out to rescue her sister.
Even quickly recruits a companion, Dicey, and learns how to fight by playing cards and rolling a dice–and yes, before you say anything, the game uses “dice” not as a plural but as a singular. Combat is the heart of this action-adventure, and it takes a bit of getting used to. Even can’t attack enemies without first playing a card that grants her an ability, but to be able to play a card at all she must first collect enough crystals to be dealt one. When she has cards up to a full hand of five she can roll Dicey and play a number of cards equal to the number on the dice. What at first feels like a lot of unnecessary complications soon comes together to offer plenty of clever tactical and strategic choices.