Tales of Kenzera: Zau review – First time’s the charm

Tales of Kenzera: Zau review – First time’s the charm

Tales of Kenzera: Zau is a bold first outing from developer Surgent Studio. While not without flaws, this well-crafted Metroidvania should delight fans of the genre as well as those who love a heartfelt story.

Since Tales of Kenzera: Zau was revealed at The Game Awards 2023, I’ve been very keen to try it out. I’ts uncommon inspirations and setting within Bantu mythology offer a distinct experience in a medium stuffed to the brim with samurai, Vikings, and knights.

Playing the role of a Shaman feels remarkably fresh while still being housed within the familiar trappings of the Metroidvania genre. Balance is a prevalent theme throughout the game and Tales of Kenzera: Zau strikes this one deftly.

Excellent traversal, considered combat, and a well-structured, engaging story make the 10-12 hours it takes to complete fly by all too quickly. The fact that Tales of Kenzera: Zau is Surgent Studios‘ first crack at telling a story in this fashion makes it all the more impressive.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau – Key details

Two tales in one

Tales of Kenzera: Zau review – First time’s the charm

Zuberi lives in the Afrofuturistic city of Amani while Zau’s story takes place in the distant past.

Drawing on Creative Director and studio founder Abubakar Salim’s own experience with grief – and that of his team – Tales of Kenzera: Zau’s story follows two main characters. Zuberi; a young man who is dealing with the recent loss of his father, and Zau; a headstrong Shaman that serves as the protagonist of an unfinished book that Zuberi’s father left him.

You’ll spend the vast majority of the game experiencing the perilous journey of Zau as Zuberi reads his tale. The young Shaman has lost his own father and strikes a bargain with the god of death Kalunga to bring his father back to life.

Kalunga serves as a guide on Zau’s journey and a constant companion. In contrast to many other gods of death in gaming, Kalunga forms a genuine bond with Zau in the absence of his father and the two character’s emerging relationship is one of the high points of the game.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau review – First time’s the charm

Kalunga is a stern voice of reason that tempers Zau’s recklessness.

Throughout Zau’s journey to calm and guide three spirits that have denied Kalunga, you travel through a diverse range of biomes meeting fantastically realized characters. The inhabitants of Kenzera are brought to life by the game’s superb cast of voice actors, all of whom give emotive performances that more than make up for the dialogue being delivered in relatively static conversational scenes.

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A shout-out certainly needs to be given to Abubakar Salim’s voicework with Zau and Tristan D. Lalla’s as Kalunga. The two Assassin’s Creed alumni carry the story of Tales of Kenzera: Zau on their backs with ease.

Of course, the game’s story isn’t just told through dialogue and performance. Tales of Kenzera: Zau’s gameplay works in tandem with these aspects to create a well-rounded experience that never forgets its focus: coping with loss.

Traversing the world of Kenzera

Tales of Kenzera: Zau review – First time’s the charm

Small moments of peace punctuate Tales of Kenzera: Zau’s tumultuous journey.

For a game about grief, Tales of Kenzera: Zau is surprisingly colorful. Your journey takes you through a number of distinct biomes with their own sets of challenges from peaceful plains to blighted forests and volcanic wastelands. All of which offer some staggering spectacles for a sidescroller.

The genre trappings of Metroidvania function remarkably similar to a journey through the grieving process. Players are placed in an unfamiliar world and steadily discover tools for navigating it. The intention is to align the gameplay elements and narrative direction of the game and it pays off tremendously in the end.

Much like its peers in the genre, Tales of Kenzera: Zau has players explore a maze-like world that continuously loops back on itself or bars progression. Unlocking new powers of traversal from Shaman Shrines will allow players to progress forward or explore new areas in places they have already traveled.

Simple additions like a grappling hook that launches you to new heights or the ability to break and reconstruct platforms or barriers open up a wealth of traversal possibilities. One of the earliest abilities you acquire is the ability to freeze water which completely alters previously navigated areas.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau review – First time’s the charm

Freezing water is just one of the many abilities you’ll unlock in Tales of Kenzera: Zau.

You go from dashing through obstructive waterfalls to freezing them temporarily so that they might act as tools for wall jumping. This is one of many tools that open up the world of Kenzera’s many branching paths.

While there is a primary route that you will need to progress through the game’s story, Tales of Kenzera: Zau never fails to reward you for straying off that path. Exploring will always give you something in return whether it’s more lore to flesh out its fantastic setting and characters, or various upgrades that increase Zau’s combat effectiveness.

Optional Shamanic Trials are platforming challenges that need to be completed in a single run and award Trinkets that can be equipped for game-changing passive upgrades. Finding and meditating at a Baobab Tree will increase your maximum health and there is even more to discover for those who are willing.

These will often be locked away behind challenges or puzzles that require you to weave the various abilities you find together deftly. Mastering the careful application of these at the right time creates a fantastic traversal experience that feels rewarding to master. A similar intent exists in the game’s combat though there are instances where it fails to come together.

The Dance of the Shaman

Tales of Kenzera: Zau review – First time’s the charm

Zau’s masks are the key to his shamanic power.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau’s combat is referred to in-game as The Dance of the Shaman and its title is understandable. Zau possesses two masks through which he channels his shamanic power to devastating effect.

The Mask of the Sun offers an aggressive melee moveset that focuses on quickly dispatching single targets. The Mask of the Moon gives Zau ranged attacks and crowd control abilities.

The traversal powers you find along your journey almost always have combat applications tied to the two masks. For instance, the ability to freeze water also allows you to freeze enemies which temporarily removes them from combat and lessens the danger of encounters against large groups.

A skill tree for each of the masks allows you to expand your options in combat with abilities like deflecting ranged attacks or setting your enemies on fire. The game does a very good job of incentivizing the player to use both sets of abilities in combat meaning you never prioritize one or the other.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau review – First time’s the charm

Each mask has its own utility that can be strengthened with investment.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau has a decent variety of enemy types with varying ways to hamper you like siphoning your health to heal their allies. This creates priority targets that make combat encounters feel like a sort of puzzle.

Attacking enemies rewards you Spirit which can be used to either heal Zau or unleash devastating ultimate moves. Unfortunately, I found myself leaning more toward healing myself and very rarely used the flashy ultimates outside of the boss fights that punctuate each chapter of the game.

Particularly in encounters with large groups of enemies which could oftentimes interfere with the measured pace of combat and throw off the dance aspect that is supposed to be its focus. The chaotic nature of these encounters did ramp up the difficulty but the price of this was that these encounters felt like trial and error and in some cases, it seemed like clearing them was more a matter of luck than skill.

In these instances cases, clearing certain combat encounters left me feeling relieved rather than triumphant. These moments were rare but they did detract from an otherwise engaging gameplay loop.

Verdict: 4.5/5

Tales of Kenzera: Zau is Surgent Studios’ first attempt at creating a video game experience and they’ve knocked it out of the park. It offers a compelling journey that expertly weaves its narrative and gameplay together to tell a heartwarming story about grief and acceptance.

The parallel journeys of Zau and Zuberi and their final convergence is a wonderful love letter to those we have lost. Unblemished by any performance issues or bugs in my playthrough on the PlayStation 5, its only shortcomings are a few frustrating but bearable combat encounters.

EA Originals has a knack for spotlighting indie projects for publication and it’s very easy to understand why they chose this one. Given its very accessible pricepoint and day-one addition to the PlayStation Plus Extra catalog, the game has tremendous value and it’s impossible not to recommend it.

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