Bladedancing in Kenzera: A Comprehensive Review of Tales of Kenzera: Zau

Surgent Studios’ debut game, Tales of Kenzera: Zau, is another incredible EA Originals title.

By Jordan RaméeTwitter: @JMRamee on April 22, 2024 at 7:17AM PDT

Grief is a messy, convoluted emotion to navigate. There’s rarely a straightforward path to get through it; oftentimes it can feel like you’re walking in circles around what you’re looking for, or banging your head against the same mental roadblock again and again. In many ways, the experience of playing through a metroidvania mimics the feeling of working through grief–the genre is built on a similar path of progression, where the necessary tools to move forward are earned step-by-step, and a protagonist’s evolving moveset makes it easier to overcome its challenges and navigate a seemingly inescapable world. Tales of Kenzera: Zau leans into that parallel, creating a powerful and moving message within the context of a stellar action-adventure game.

Tales of Kenzera sees you play as Zau, the fictional hero of a story that a father wrote for his son just prior to the father’s death. Zau, similarly, is working through the grief of a lost father. Unable to get past the pain, he calls upon the god of death, Kalunga, and offers him a deal: If Zau successfully brings the three great spirits that have resisted Kalunga to the land of the dead, then Kalunga will bring Zau’s father back to life. The god agrees and the duo set out, Zau relying on the shaman masks and training he inherited from his father to overcome the dangers of nearby lands. As a metroidvania, the game features moments where Zau must backtrack and use newly unlocked abilities (freezing water, for example, or a grappling hook used to swing over large pits), which Kalunga helps Zau master to navigate the distinct biomes of the map.

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Now Playing: Tales of Kenzera: ZAU GameSpot Video Review

Inspired by Bantu mythology, Tales of Kenzera’s map is a stunning labyrinth that borrows from African culture to provide depth and context to its joined territories. The Bantu legendaries lend a vivid backdrop to the narrative, metaphorically presenting Zau’s fight against towering creatures as an inner voyage–you never question how or why Zau’s quest to beat a mother aids in persuading her to make peace with leaving her child alone. Within the Tales of Kenzera’s mythology, these actions are consistent, converting the physical world into something more like a cognitive palace. This transformation elevates the explosive contests, as well, with the audio effects and orchestral soundtrack morphing each encounter into an intense mix of emotion and spiritual fervour where flame-charged shockwaves represent violent eruptions, and on target evasions symbolize a thoughtful retort.

Every location feels unique from its counterparts, both in colour palette and hurdles. The nauseating green marshes and gigantic trees of the western forest challenge Zau’s gymnastic talents, whereas the volcanic warmth and arid oranges and reds of the northern desert present various endurance-centric trials that compel Zau to bear hordes of foes or crack complex environmental riddles. The organization of these areas intertwine with the story, enhancing the narration in gratifying ways. The mentioned desert directs Zau to realize that sorrow isn’t an emotion that can be simply vanquished–it persists to surge over you in waves, analogously to the army of antagonists he has to battle. And occasionally, sorrow can sidetrack you by appearing in a known but slightly altered form, akin to the numerous environmental enigmas in the desert area which are larger, more twisted versions of what Zau had to resolve previously. We, as players, surmount these impediments alongside Zau working through his distress–he develops as we do, bolstering our bond with his adventure.

The connection between Kalunga and Zau is a dominant theme, marked by regular appearances of Kalunga in Zau’s journey, offering insights into the history and culture of the land as well as helping Zau deal with his raw emotions. Abubakar Salim and Tristan D. Lalla offer outstanding portrayals. Salim moves skillfully between anger and deep sorrow in the role of the bereaved Zau, whereas Lalla brings a remarkable authority and power to Kalunga’s father-like character. Their growth throughout the game, despite the gloomy storyline, is oddly heartwarming and helps the player fully immerse in Zau’s evolution as a shaman.

The other characters in Tales of Kenzera, despite excellent voice acting, lack the same depth as their appearances are rather limited and mostly confined to narrative devices instructing Zau on his next hunt. The minimal presence of the supporting cast in the story is somewhat disappointing.

The narrative structure that frames Zau’s story is disruptive. Near the ending, the player is abruptly taken back to the real world, to be reminded of the narrative frame – which feels incredibly jarring. By stopping to explain its premise, it feels as though the game elaborates that media can aid in overcoming grief, thus breaking its own illusion and reducing the impact of the closing moments of Zau’s journey. The narrative flow leading into the conclusion of Tales of Kenzera is significantly disrupted.

Yet, the combat mechanism in Tales of Kenzera exceeds expectations. Zau has the ability to rapidly switch between the Sun and Moon masks, granting him different capabilities. The Sun mask is for melee, while the moon mask is for long-range attacks. By merging movements from both masks in devastating sequences, players are rewarded. A favorite sequence is attacking an opponent with spears from the Sun mask, switching to the Moon mask to blast them away, dashing towards them, switching back to the Sun to strike them with a four-hit melee combo, then again reverting to the Moon to keep them in air with ranged attacks.

Zau is powerful, yet faces a multitude of adversaries. This makes each battle a puzzle where situational awareness reigns supreme. The game encourages tactical movement between enemies, often against overwhelming odds. Color is strategically used to distinguish between the movements of Zau (in shades of blue and orange) and the enemies (in hues of green and purple) in the midst of fast-paced fights. Rarely does a defeat feel like a result of mere bad luck. The occasional visual overload might present difficulties if you stand still long enough for the enemies to encircle you, but this feels more like a consequence of player judgement rather than a flaw in the game.

Zau’s combat abilities don’t see many upgrades throughout the journey. While there is a skill tree, most unlocks serve to enhance existing mechanics like charging the moon mask’s projectiles for a more significant attack or extending the sun mask’s combo chain. The true evolution of combat lies in the variety of enemies that Zau has to contend with. From straightforward melee attackers and slow-moving projectile launchers, to shield bearers, explosive ball-shaped foes, and health sapping fireflies, the enemy diversity ensures the combat maintains its thrill.

Tales of Kenzera offers deceptive simplicity in its early stages, building up to a surprisingly challenging latter half. A difficulty slider offers some control by adjusting Zau’s resilience and the damage he imparts before an enemy is defeated. Though this slider doesn’t alter instant-kill hazards, the game is generous with checkpoints, ensuring that even the toughest challenges don’t become overly frustrating.

The ultimate test of Zau’s quest to guide the great spirits to the realm of the dead falls in the boss fights. Emblematic of their best, these battles pit Zau against gigantic beings each steeped in their own grief. The emotional state of these spirits dictates their combative style and Zau’s strategy to defeat them. For example, a spirit overwhelmed with rage poses a unique challenge, where its fury generates massive walls that could potentially knock Zau off the arena, unless he uses his abilities to breach these obstructions. Thus literalizing their rage as an explosive force, these heightened confrontations add richness to the game’s combat dynamics.

The intense drama instilled in these encounters is emphasized by profoundly stirring musical composition. My adrenaline was soaring during Tales of Kenzera, especially after the battle against the frightened spirit, a feeling which was amplified by the touch of the rhythmic escalation in the music score and the tension of the stringed instruments playing in the background. These battles are not just mechanically engaging but also emotionally resonant – they mark stages of a boy’s battle with grief. All stages are spectacular in their own unique ways, making the game an unforgettable experience.

In some instances, Tales of Kenzera includes chase sequences, a typical aspect in the metroidvania genre. The original Metroid game serves as a pioneer to this element, especially with the introduction of Samus’ escape from Zebes. Usually, such sequences present players with an opportunity to recover i.e. Metroid or save the game at various points within the section like Ori and the Will of the Wisps or Hollow Knight. Tales of Kenzera on the other hand, implements neither strategy thereby leading to repeated sequence play after losing, which can be quite exasperating for players. There also exists a notably challenging sequence towards the end where Zau must hop between narrow platforms to escape potentially fatal predicaments which was quite conflicting for me.

Thematic interpretation might suggest that these sequences symbolize working through anger and fear – predominant emotions during grief. However, the lack of save points within these sequences mirror the harsh reality of dealing with such emotions in real life. Despite its thematic accuracy, the lack of save points contrast with the otherwise autosave feature in the game that tends to infringe upon the fun aspect of metroidvania, often leading to frustration amongst players. These frustrating moments however are few and far in between, and therefore add just a minor disadvantage to an otherwise captivating game.

The true strength of Tales of Kenzera: Zau lies within its intense storyline that delves deep into the complexities of navigating around emotions such as sadness, anger, and fear. Despite minor inconveniences, Zau’s journey to acceptance and coming to terms with loss resonates with the musical score, vocal performances, and battles mirroring Bantu myth. As loss is a universal sentiment, Zau’s struggle with grief strikes a relatable chord amongst players. There’s an affecting story to follow if you’re willing to grapple with the discomfort of the themes depicted in the game.

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