Tales of Kenzera: Zau is a gorgeous, deeply personal Metroidvania | Hands-on preview

by on April 12, 2024

Grief, while something many of us hope – and often fail – to avoid in our lives can be a powerful catalyst for creativity, and those who are able to channel it into something positive to share with others are special individuals. One such is Abubakar Salim, founder of Surgent Studios. Some will know him from House of the Dragon, or as the voice of Bayek in Assassin’s Creed: Origins. But Tales of Kenzera: Zau is a deeply personal project of his, inspired by the loss of his father ten years ago, and heavily influenced by his experiences with the Bantu tribes of Africa and their myths.

It’s a Metroidvania game focusing on Zau, a young man dealing with the loss of his own father. A burgeoning Shaman in his own right, Zau embarks upon a quest to defeat three spirits and deliver their souls to the God of Death, who might resurrect Zau’s father in return. We’ve played the early portion of the game – a little beyond what was available in the Steam Next Fest demo, and Tales of Kenzera: Zau is shaping up to be a fantastic entry to its genre.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau

The aesthetic is beautiful, with stunning backdrops and intricately-designed levels. Zau himself moves with a wonderful speed and grace, most analogous to the protagonist in this year’s Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown. Being able to wall-jump, double-jump, and dash through obstacles and enemies, Zau is nimble and fluid in his movements.

But it’s also more story-heavy than many games in the genre. Accompanied at all times by the spirit of an older, wiser Shaman, Zau’s impetuousness and single-minded determination often lead to harsh lessons learned when bested by enemies or situations he isn’t ready for yet. Voiced by Salim, Zau is a strong protagonist, leading the narrative by his actions – right or wrong – and learning to grow with every challenge he overcomes.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau

He is armed with a pair of magical Masks, one of the Sun and one of the Moon. The Sun Mask empowers Zau with the gift of fire, granting him powerful melee combos, a ground slam, and the ability to conjure tornadoes of flame as an ultimate attack. The Mask of the Moon is the opposite, imbuing Zau with the power of ice and enabling him to freeze enemies with ranged attacks, or freeze waterfalls and streams to get around the world. Each has its own skill tree, which can be advanced using Ulogi, a spiritual currency taken from enemies and completing certain challenges.

You must constantly switch between the masks during combat and gameplay, as some enemies are colour-coded with shields that can only be broken by a specific element. It keeps the action dynamic and frantic, requiring total concentration but rarely punishing you harshly for failure. Checkpoints are well-placed, and there are fast travel points to help with the backtracking.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau

Zau can also complete hidden challenges and find collectibles to increase his health and energy, or to unlock talismans that can imbue certain buffs when equipped at a workbench. My only complaint so far is that the map seems to be completely revealed from the start, and with nothing to uncover it can be tricky to remember where you’ve been already, which is crucial for a Metroidvania. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it is strange and a little annoying.

Abubakar Salim has clearly put so much of himself into the game, though, from the thoughtful writing, inspired art work, and character development. There’s only a week or so now until launch and what we’ve played is incredibly polished, and has us itching to spend more time in the world and with the characters. It’s been a year of high quality, especially in this genre, and Zau seems like another to add to the pile of titles that are well worth your time.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau is coming to PC, Switch, PlayStation, and Xbox on April 23rd. There’s a PC demo out now.