Tales of Kenzera: Zau Review – Grief and Gameplay

Tales of Kenzera: Zau Review - Grief and Gameplay

Tales of Kenzera: Zau, the debut game from Surgent Studios, presents a contrast between the beauty of the world of Kenzera, and the the darkness that feelings of grief and loss can bring upon ourselves. A 2D side-scrolling Metroidvania-like game, Tales of Kenzera takes you through the young shaman Zau’s journey of grief after the death of his Baba, taking you platforming through gorgeous environments as you attempt to secure the return of your Baba with three spirits who shunned Kalunga, the Spirit of Death.

The strongest part of the game, and the one that has the potential to hit players in the feels, is the narrative journey of Zau through his grief. Accompanied by Kalunga, Zau must confront his feelings and fears, with the stages of grief powerfully portrayed through the writing and voice acting work.  Fans of Assassins Creed: Origins will recognise the voice of Zau as Abubakar Salim, the voice actor behind protagonist Bayek, who is also the Creative Lead for Tales of Kenzera: Zau. It was his journey through grief after the loss of his father that became the basis for the game, and the emotions and energy he brings to the role are very powerful.

I call this game Metroidvania-like because it feels a lot more linear than your traditional Metroidvania game. Rather than being able to go wherever you want and being forced to backtrack when you encounter unpassable obstacles, Tales of Kenzera instead feels like it is holding your hand, marking on the map exactly where you need to go to proceed with the story and showing the entire map for your current area as soon as you enter it. Rather than making me explore thoroughly to ensure I found new skills and health upgrades myself, instead I could just look at the map and see where I had to go and the way to get there. The completely open map also meant that once I had unlocked other skills that would allow me to access previously locked pathways, I would have to explore the whole area again to find where they were, rather than looking at a map and deducing where to go due to what is uncovered and what isn’t. The locked pathways also mostly just contain background lore information rather than gameplay upgrades, meaning only your most dedicated completionists will go back to scour through untravelled pathways.


Combat is mixed between melee and ranged, depending on which mask you have equipped. The mask of the Moon allows Zau to fire projectiles and freeze opponents and water, while the mask of the Sun equips Zau with two spears of fire for close-quarters combat. You can easily flip between each of them with a simple button press and there will be plenty of occasions where you will have to switch to a certain mask to effectively damage an enemy. Each of the masks comes with several upgrades that can be unlocked, but they do not affect players’ progress in any way. A player could, if they chose to, not unlock any of the skills associated with the masks and still be able to complete the game. Unfortunately, the majority of the combat you experience is in little arena-style areas. Upon entering these areas magic barriers will appear and will not allow you to progress until you defeat two or three waves of enemies. While I have no problem with these arena areas in general, I would estimate a good 75% of the combat outside of boss fights is in these types of areas, while you will have large traversal areas with little or no enemies at all. Spreading more enemies out throughout the map instead of concentrating them in these zones would make traversal more lively, and decrease the amount of these arena battles players have to face.

As mentioned earlier, as you journey through the lands of Kenzera you will unlock new traversal methods that will allow you to explore in different ways. Some of these are easier to deal with than others, for example, freezing waterfalls to allow Zau to wall jump off them, but others will sometimes leave your survival up to the vagaries of chance, with one wrong move sending you into one of the many instant death spikes or lava traps. Fortunately, the game is very generous with its respawn, most of the time returning Zau to life on the last solid and secure platform he was on before his death. 


Which is why it was so jarring when that was taken away. At two different points in the game, I was thrown into a sequence where Zau had to outrun danger. The camera was pulled out further than what the player normally experiences and you have to make split-second decisions on what to do and where to go. Almost any mistake resulted in an instant death and a restart of the whole sequence. I lost count of the number of times I died in those two sequences, but I had to put the controller down and walk away more than once. I have no problem with these sorts of sequences, but to go from a hand-holding approach to respawning and then throwing in long sequences of frequent instant death without any warning left a sour taste in my mouth.  


While Tales of Kenera does have its faults, it is still a strong debut title for Surgent Studios and apart from the sequences attempting to outrun instant death, I enjoyed my time with it. I think that with some tweaks in updates, such as keeping the map hidden until the player uncovers areas and potentially adding more enemies in the world, Surgent Studios can have a game that lovers of the genre can appreciate.


Tales of Kenzera: Zau was reviewed on PS5 with code kindly supplied by EA Australia

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