Tales of Kenzera: Zau Review – Ancestral Action

Tales of Kenzera: Zau review

When it comes to action RPGs, most games are focused on the elements of combat and exploration. The story often feels secondary, tacked on or irrelevant. Tales of Kenzera: Zau is one of those rare games that strikes a near-perfect balance between engaging action and a genuinely heartfelt and emotionally rich narrative. For that reason — and many others — Tales of Kenzera: Zau is worth looking at for fans of the 2.5 action RPG/Metroidvania genre.

Grief and Loss

At great many action RPGs/Metroidvanias are set in gothic, monster-filled worlds. In contrast, Zau’s setting is both refreshingly unique but also filled with a sense of culture and history. Tales of Kenzera draws inspiration from the language, culture and spirituality of the African Bantu tradition. Over 4,000 years old, the Bantu now comprise more than 300 million people, nearly two thirds of the African continent’s population.

While the industry is filled with creativity, it’s a bit rare for voice actors to switch roles and helm the development of a game. Abubakar Salim is a film and stage actor, best known for roles in Assassin’s Creed, Diablo and World of Warcraft. As well as lending acting talent to Tales of Kenzera: Zau, Salim is the game’s director. Zau is the premiere title from Salim’s Surgent Studios.

The gist of the story In Tales of Kenzera: Zau is a timeless as a myth. You play as Zau, a young warrior shaman who is grieving the loss of his father. Kalunga, the God of Death, tasks you with collecting several items that will allow Zau’s father to return to the land of the living. But in reality, Zau’s quest is much less straightforward, and infinitely more emotionally involving. Zau’s actual and unstated quest is working through the stages of grief and learning the ways of shamanic power.

Where the Pixels Meet the Player

While the above description might make Tales of Kenzera: Zau sound heavy-handed and focused on story, it’s really first and foremost a classic-feeling Metroidvania. I say “classic” because the game never strays too far from the fundamentals of the genre. There are environmental puzzles, there’s a great deal of platforming and a multi-level map with lots of backtracking. Happily, the game is handcrafted and not procedurally generated.

I’ve played quite a number of otherwise excellent Metroidvanias that struggle with level design, and long stretches without much of anything interesting to do. In contast, Zau rarely asks the hero to go anywhere without encountering combat, clever platforming or a puzzle to solve. It keeps things engaging. Zau is not a sprawling epic. It balances length and content to advantage.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau has attractive, stylized art that’s varied, colorful and miles away from grim or dark. In fact, the developers note that the color palette in the game’s three main zones is reflective of Zau’s emotional journey. The game’s script is respectful of a rich cultural tradition and balances serious emotional beats with gentle humor. It’s not surprising, given the studio’s origins, that the game is well voice acted.

Combat Readiness

While sticking pretty close to Metroidvania traditions, Tales of Kenzera: Zau does have some fresh ideas when it comes to combat. Most important, Zau can switch instantly between the Mask of the Sun and the Mask of the Moon. Each of the Masks is associated with a specific combat style and special abilities. For example, the Moon Mask allows Zau to freeze rivers and waterfalls for platforming. The Sun Masks imbues weapons with flame.

Where’s Zau’s combat becomes particularly entertaining is in fights with groups of enemies (which, by the way, is most of them). Within each encounter, switching masks to exploit specific enemy weaknesses is the core task. It makes combat both frenetic and breathlessly tactical. Tales of Kenzera: Zau is not a Soulslike, but its combat is not button-mashing simple.

Zau himself has a pretty wide set of moves for both platforming and combat. They’re all smoothly animated. As a gamer with a longstanding aversion to overly precise platforming, I was pleasantly surprised. Zau has a number of pretty demanding sequences, but almost nothing felt unfair or impossible. There were a few stretches — a frozen waterfall section that required coordinated platforming and special abilities — of which I was not a fan.

A Modest Proposal

Tales of Kenzera: Zau is a well-made Metroidvania with an intriguing and culturally unique narrative and setting. It doesn’t try to reinvent the genre, but there’s nothing wrong with sticking to a familiar path if the result is polished and fun. Tales of Kenzera: Zau has a colorful, welcoming vibe with a mythic story to tell and enough action to keep players engaged.

***PS5 code provided by the publishers for review***


The Good

  • Colorful art
  • Interesting story and themes
  • Enjoyable platforming and combat

The Bad

  • A few frustrating sections
  • Sticks pretty close to genre traditions