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Tales of Kenzera: Zau review — Metroidvania with heart

Tales of Kenzera: Zau
Image: Surgent Studios

Developed as a tribute to his late father, Tales of Kenzera: Zau is a mighty achievement considering it’s the first game by Abubakar Salim and his team at Surgent Studios. From the moment you first step foot in the game’s world, it’s clear that a lot of heart and soul has been put into bringing it to life, and its story that centres around a young man’s grief is gripping from beginning to end.

Players take control of a warrior shaman named Zau, a character who, just like Abubakar, has lost his father. Stricken with grief, Tales of Kenzera: Zau finds him seeking out and making a deal with the God of Death, Kalunga. Should he be able to find and bring peace to the three great spirits that have cheated death, Kalunga will bring Zau’s Baba, his father, back to him. But it’s a task that’s perhaps not as easy as it first seems.

Guided by Kalunga, your journey in Tales of Kenzera: Zau will take you through a large number of biomes, each with their own theme. But what’s really clever here is the use of colour to recreate emotions. As you explore, you’ll vicariously experience grief, hope and more, with each biome very much having its own atmosphere. Though there’s no doubt that Tales of Kenzera: Zau looks its best when it’s at its most colourful.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau
Image: Surgent Studios

Another thing that stands out is map design. While Tales of Kenzera: Zau is perhaps quite linear for a Metroidvania game, there is the occasional option to go off the beaten path. Sometimes these optional areas are inaccessible the first time you pass through too, requiring you to return later when you have new skills in your repertoire. But what players will really appreciate is the loop-based nature of routes in each biome, making exploration a cinch, especially once you’ve unlocked shortcuts.

Related: This short film tells the emotional real-life story behind Tales of Kenzera: Zau

There is, of course, a lot of combat. Integral here is a mask system that lets you access the powers of the Sun and the Moon. With the Moon mask equipped you’re able to attack enemies at range, but you open yourself up to melee attacks. That’s where the Sun mask comes in, which allows you to unleash powerful combos on your opponents up close. Savvy players will switch between the two masks to deal with enemies effectively, especially when enemies with spiritual shields start to show up, resistant to damage from attack with one mask or the other.

Combat in Tales of Kenzera: Zau seems quite limited at first, but the further you get into the game the more it opens up. While there aren’t a vast number of attacks for you to unlock via the Sun and Moon skill trees, some of the abilities you unlock primarily to explore more of the game’s world also prove to be useful when engaged with enemies. A powerful kick that can be used destroy to destroy certain blocks, for example, can be worked into combos with great effect.

Tales of Kenzera Zau boss
Image: Surgent Studios

There are some aspects of combat that aren’t great, though. The dodge manoeuvre can be a little unwieldy, for example, with it sometimes being hard to track where you’ve dashed to when surrounded by multiple enemies. You also need to be careful when performing a melee combo near an environmental hazard such as a spike pit, as you tend to move forward when attacking. On the whole, though, combat here is very enjoyable indeed, with boss fights in particular being a standout.

Our main gripe with Tales of Kenzera: Zau is a trio of chase sections that can feel a little punishing at times. In sequences reminiscent of those found in Moon Studios’ Ori series, you’ll sometimes find yourself pursued by an enemy or imposing hazard, requiring you to think, and act, fast. Some may find these sequences overly punishing compared to the rest of the game, as one mistake is all it takes to get caught and have to start at the beginning again.

Tales of Kenzera Zau
Image: Surgent Studios

Elsewhere, Tales of Kenzera: Zau is fairly lenient when it comes to failure. While there are spikes aplenty, and other hazards that result in instant death if touched, you never really lose any progress; you generally get taken to the start of a battle or the last platform you had your feet on. The only exception to this is during the many optional challenges you find on your travels, the completion of which will reward you with trinkets to equip that provide a variety of perks.

Ultimately, Tales of Kenzera: Zau is a delight from beginning to end, with only the odd frustration along the way. Add in an absolutely sublime soundtrack by Nainita Desai and strong voice acting throughout, and you have a Metroidvania with a unique flavour that absolutely deserves to be played. It’s safe to say that whatever Abubakar Salim does next with Surgent Studios, we’re here for it. Whether it’s another emotional tale from Kenzera or something entirely different, we look forward to welcoming it with open arms.

This review of Tales of Kenzera: Zau is based on the PS5 version, with a code provided by the game’s publisher. It’s available on PS5, Xbox Series X/S, Switch and PC.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau review - GameSpew's score

Tales of Kenzera: Zau
9 10 0 1
Tales of Kenzera: Zau is a Metroidvania full of heart and soul. With its engaging combat, sublime soundtrack and story that grabs your attention from the get-go, fans of the genre should consider this a must-have.
Tales of Kenzera: Zau is a Metroidvania full of heart and soul. With its engaging combat, sublime soundtrack and story that grabs your attention from the get-go, fans of the genre should consider this a must-have.
9/10
Total Score

We like...

  • Sublime soundtrack
  • Enjoyable combat
  • Engaging story

We don't like...

  • Chase sequences can be frustrating
Editor in Chief // An avid gamer since discovering the wonders of the Acorn Electron in the '80s, Rich has nearly played more games than he's had hot dinners. Not one to put all his eggs in one basket, Rich is happy to play games of all genres, but he particularly enjoys racing games and anything that's full of non-stop action, especially if it includes a good dose of humour, horror or crudeness!