Tales of Kenzera: ZAU Review

Award of Excellence

Games are often passion projects for their developers, but few are as deeply personal as Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is to actor Abubakar Salim, the founder and Creative Director of Surgent Studios. The idea for the game was born from Salim’s experience in dealing with his grief after the passing of his father, when he asked himself, “What would I sacrifice to bring my father back, to hear him again, to touch him?” This question forms the basis of the story in the game, a story that was also deeply influenced by the Bantu myths and legends Salim’s father would tell him while he was growing up. Salim chose a game as a way to share his story of the grieving process rather than some other media because of his father as well, who was the person who introduced him to gaming. Salim became an actor because of the way games put you into the shoes of their characters and have you evolve along with them. Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is his way of bringing you, the gamer, along on the journey of healing from a personal perspective that can only come through a video game’s power to immerse you in the world of its protagonist.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is a metroidvania game, and Salim’s choice of that genre for his game was also driven by the story he wanted to tell. Salim felt that the features and touchstones of metroidvania games have a certain similarity to grief, “You're thrown into this alien world that you can never prepare for. And yet, the longer you stay in it, explore its corners at your own time, the more comfortable you get with it. It's metroidvania, grief.”


Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is actually a story within a story. Zuberi is a young man living with his family in a futuristic Africa that is strongly influenced by the Wakanda of the Black Panther movies. He is having a hard time dealing with the loss of his father, or Baba, when he learns that his Baba wrote a story for him during his final days. The story was heavily inspired by Bantu mythology, and tells the tale of a young shaman named Zau who is also faced by the sudden loss of his Baba. Zau doesn’t want to let go, though, and decides to summon the god of death, Kalunga, to barter for the return of his Baba. Kalunga makes a deal with Zau – if Zau can bring peace to three great spirits who have cheated death, he will return Zau’s Baba to him. Kalunga is a wise and noble god who manifests himself as an elderly man. He will accompany Zau in spirit on his quest, providing guidance and advice along the way. Although Kalunga warns Zau that others have tried to undertake this quest and failed, Kalunga sees something in Zau and is intrigued by the young shaman. You will play as Zau as both you and Zuberi make your way through the story, and learn the lessons that Zuberi’s Baba infused it with.

Knowing that Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is a metroidvania game, you can probably guess at this point that the three sprits will be bosses that you must face after reaching the end of each sprit’s world. The worlds aren’t the fiery hells that you might expect when hearing about a game in which you make a deal with the god of death, though. Each world has its own unique biome and distinct primary color palette, designed to reflect the stage of grief each spirit represents – as an aside, since the game was inspired by Salim’s personal journey through the grieving process, don’t expect everything to fit neatly into the textbook five stages. Color, atmosphere, and music are deeply intertwined in the game, and carefully chosen to represent the stage that Zau, and by extension, Zuberi, is on his journey. You will probably be surprised at how vibrant and alive the levels look for a game focused on the topic of death.

Gameplay falls along the lines of the primary pillars that you’d expect from a metroidvania game – exploration, platforming, combat, and puzzles. One of the things that I appreciated while playing the game was that the map opened in sections, so I was never blind with respect to the general direction that I needed to head or to where the key locations I discovered on my journey were. I didn’t have to commit every intersection to memory in order to find my way there and back again – something that I think that those of you who, like me, tend to play games in spurts with breaks in between will appreciate. I don’t want to lose gameplay time to endless backtracking because I forgot to turn one way instead of the other.


One of the things that Tales of Kenzera: ZAU does that is a bit different than the typical metroidvania game is that it gives you a fairly powerful set of moves from the onset. The games wants you to feel that you have some power from the very beginning since you are playing as a shaman. This is not to say that you will not gain some new abilities that will allow you to overcome obstacles that were previously impassable as you play, though, but you won’t encounter anything that you can’t double-jump dash, wall-jump your way through in the game from the start. The game’s platforming controls took a little getting used to for me – the game expects an ever-so-slight pause between button presses rather than the rapid double-taps I’m used to doing for most games. It takes a little getting used to, but you’ll get the hang of it.

Playing through the game’s levels involves some of the inevitable backtracking that is par for the course with metroidvania games, but the levels are designed so that they play differently depending on which direction that you’re traversing them. I have to credit the level designers for this because I imagine it’s not an easy thing to pull off. Overall, there’s not an excessive amount of backtracking for a game in this genre, and fast travel locations help you to work your way back quickly over the larger stretches.

The game’s puzzles are pretty straightforward, so they don’t present too much of a challenge. The game instead looks to put your platforming skills to the test through optional challenge sections. These will take some work for you to get through as the timing of the moves that you need to make can be tight, but there will be a reward waiting for you at the end. These sections are well-marked and entirely optional, so if you find one frustrating, you can simply move on.

Zau possesses two masks that he inherited from his father, the Mask of the Moon and the Mask of the Sun. Each provides a different power set and you can switch between them at will. The Mask of the Sun is focused on melee combat while the Mask of the Moon gives you ranged attacks. There are light and heavy attacks for each, and you can spend the upgrade points you earn in battle on additional moves for each Mask. The ranged attacks require energy to use and if you deplete it, you’ll need to give it a moment to recharge, but a quick reload style mechanism borrowed from shooters is used to give you a quick refresh if you time it right. Enemies have a variety of attack styles, and the color of the shield bar and health bar above their heads indicate which type of attacks they are more vulnerable to. Killing enemies not only gives you more experience, but also powers the meter you’ll draw upon to restore your health in battle.


You’ll encounter enemies at different places in your journey, but the game does not emphasize the combat as much as it does the traversal. Sometimes you’ll face a couple of enemies to dispatch, and at others you’ll be locked into an area and have to survive several waves of enemies, arena-style, before your way will be opened again. The battles are relatively challenging, but if you’re more interested in completing the story than trying to battle your way through the game, going with an easier difficulty will make the fights more manageable for you – not necessarily easy, but more manageable.

Metroidvania is one of those genres that produces games that I can either love or hate. If I start to play a game that features endless obstacles and backtracking, and requires me to memorize complex layouts, I’m out. And even though story is not necessarily a deal-breaker for me in games, I find that I need a little more motivation to complete metroidvania games other than the nature of the grind. Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is a metroidvania that I really enjoyed and kept me motivated to keep pushing through it. I love the masterful use of color and music in the game, as well as the unique and heartfelt story. I was fascinated by the setting and the game’s mythology – it was new to me and I truly appreciated being exposed to a new mythos that is extremely underserved in gaming and other media. I enjoyed reading the additional background on everything in the game’s codex. The game’s title – “Tales of Kenzera” teasingly implies that there are more stories to be told here. I certainly hope that there are.

Final Rating: 90% - A tale well worth hearing.


Note: A review code for this game was provided by the publisher.