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Tales of Kenzera: Zau Preview – An emotional adventure

Tales of Kenzera: Zau
Image: Surgent Studios

Developed as a tribute to his late father, it’s clear from my first few hours with Tales of Kenzera: Zau that Abubakar Salim and his team at Surgent Studios have put their heart and soul into the game. It may not be the deepest Metroidvania or have the most labyrinthine world, but a lot of thought has clearly gone into its design. And then there’s the game’s story, which deals with grief.

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.

A few things have stood out to me during my time with Tales of Kenzera: Zau so far. The first is the game’s visuals, with biomes that make an impact thanks to the way they use 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 Takes 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 seems 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 an area, too, requiring you to return later when you have new skills in your repertoire. But what I really appreciate is the loop-based nature of routes in each biome, making exploration a cinch, especially once you’ve unlocked shortcuts.

There is, of course, also 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’ll 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 isn’t perfect. The dodge manoeuvre can be a little unwieldy, for example, and you 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, it’s enjoyable. You can develop your combat abilities as you progress, too, using skill points earned by levelling up to unlock new attacks and bolster the ones you already have. And this wouldn’t be a Metroidvania if there weren’t new abilities to gain that can not only be used in combat, but also allow you to manipulate the environment to open up new paths.

Tales of Kenzera Zau boss
Image: Surgent Studios

Take the first special ability you obtain: Bamba’s Stone. Only usable while wearing the Moon mask, throw it at an enemy and you can freeze them momentarily giving you the advantage. Its primary use, however, is freezing bodies of water. Throw it at a stream and it suddenly becomes a solid platform, neutralising its strong current. And if you freeze a waterfall, perhaps you can use it to walljump up to a new area.

Everything considered, it’s safe to say that I’m enjoying my time with Tales of Kenzera: Zau so far. It certainly seems like an accomplished first game by Surgent Studios. Thanks to its colourful world and unique, emotionally-driven premise, it grabs your attention from the outset and doesn’t let go. And I’ve not even touched on its wonderful soundtrack by Nainita Desai, which incorporates traditional African instrumentation. Keep an eye out for my full review later this month.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau launches 23rd April on PS5, Xbox Series X/S, Switch and PC.

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!