Tales of Kenzera: Zau Hands-On Preview

Tales of Kenzera: Zau is an upcoming 2D action-platformer developed by Surgent Studios, founded by the acclaimed BAFTA-nominated actor, Abubakar Salim. Drawing inspiration from Salim’s personal journey, which grappled with the loss of his father and their profound connection to video games, the game pays homage to Salim’s late father through a captivating and personal Metroidvania-style action-adventure platformer.

Players follow the tale of Zau, a grief-stricken shaman. After losing his father, Zau makes a desperate plea to the God of Death, Kalunga, to return his father’s soul to the realm of the living in exchange for three great spirits. As they both embark on a journey, they unravel the mysteries of the desolate world they inhabit.

We were lucky to experience the first few hours of Tales of Kenzera ahead of its release later this month, and in this hands-on preview, we’ll outline why the game will be something you may need to put on your radar as a fan of 2D Metroidvania-style platformers.

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Rich Lore in Experiential Storytelling

Tales of Kenzera is almost like your typical Metroidvania title, but also not quite. Everything about the game ties into Salim’s story, and the game’s Metroidvania roots were neither by accident nor by chance, owing to its heavy dependency on storytelling.

“This journey that we wanted to share with you had to live in a Metroidvania genre,” Salim shares. “You’re thrown into an alien world that you couldn’t prepare for, and yet the longer you stay in it and explore its corners, the more comfortable you get with it.”

Salim approached Tales of Kenzera as a coming-of-age tale and an evolution of Zau into a young man who deals with the loss of his father. The journey through grief is filled with ups and downs, and that representation is seen in various aspects of the world.

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Throughout Zau’s quest in Tales of Kenzera, much of the lore falls on the dialogue between Zau and Kalunga as they explore the lush jungles, howling caves, and treacherous ravines. Kalunga weaves tales of what the land has lost, the stories it holds, and even a glimpse at the varied mythology and culture of the world.

Tales of Kenzera employs various familiar traversal elements found in similar titles in the genre. There are traversal puzzles to conquer, and while not excruciatingly tough, they still require a skilled hand. Locked passages abound, and by gaining more skills along the way, Zau will be able to journey further into the mythical lands of Kenzera and fill up your codex with fun facts about the mythology of the game if you wish to find out more about its rich lore.

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Storytelling in Tales of Kenzera goes as far as discovering the inspiration for its colorful visuals, and despite the game being a tale of grief and mourning for loss, it is also a celebration of life. The biomes in the game, each with a prevailing color theme, speak to how the themes are communicated to the players. The storytelling extends to the smallest elements, which shows how the developers put each aspect through a thoughtful process.

Fluid Traversal and Substantial Combat

Tales of Kenzera is a fluid platformer with a sprawling and gorgeous world. As with all Metroidvanias, Zau can jump, double jump, wall jump, and many familiar facets of the genre that will make the game easy to pick up and play from the get-go.

That being the case, combat plays a key feature in Tales of Kenzera. It unfolds like a beat-em-up, allowing players to unleash basic attacks and utilize hard-earned skills obtained by defeating enemies and uncovering hidden echoes during exploration.

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One intriguing feature of Tales of Kenzera lies in its dual-mask system. Players can seamlessly switch between the Sun and Moon Masks, each corresponding to distinct mechanics. The Sun Mask emphasizes melee combos, while the Moon Mask focuses on powerful projectile attacks. These masks hold their own exclusive abilities: the Moon Mask can freeze bodies of water, while the Sun Mask unleashes energy attacks capable of powering doors.

As you progress, enemy encounters take on a more strategic dance. Color-coded foes adapt to your current mask state: Yellow-bar enemies succumb to Sun Mask combos, while those with blue armor bars yield to Moon Mask projectiles. Some enemies with varying armor classes are indicated by red and white health bars, where some attacks may prove ineffective.

As players collect spirit energy and grow in power, various skills are unlocked that assist in dealing with their quest. Players can choose to customize their Moon Mask by adding more projectiles, which is essential since the default mode stocks only 8 shots, or even gain faster reload to ensure uninterrupted combat. Meanwhile, the Sun Mask boasts a formidable ground attack, effectively repelling adversaries.

Each mask also holds ultimate abilities. The Sun Mask’s “Supernova” delivers a devastating area-of-effect attack, while the Moon Mask’s “Lunar Blast” emits a potent beam, vanquishing enemies in its path. These abilities draw from a spirit meter, which also doubles as a healing resource.

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Scattered in the game are Trinkets that play a pivotal role in combat. These valuable accessories provide passive bonuses, enhancing your skills while making the trek that much easier in your favor. Some trinkets can also be obtained from Hero Challenges, some granting increased damage resistance against traps or heightened projectile resilience. These challenges may test your mettle, but the rewards are well worth the effort.

Tales of Kenzera Playtime

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU will take around 8–10 hours to finish the main story campaign, with extra content stretching it to around 12–15 hours. Salim shares that this was a purposeful decision on their part, as the team wanted to respect the time of the players and also since there are simply too many good games out on the market today.

“We almost want to treat it [Tales of Kenzera] like a good season of TV. Plus, at a $20 price point… respect the wallet. Gaming is an expensive hobby, and we want to make this as accessible as possible, especially with the idea of a universal theme of grief.

Based on the early hours of the game, Tales of Kenzera: ZAU holds some promise of being a serviceable Metroidvania title that puts a premium on storytelling, even if it does not do anything that evolves or transforms the genre. If you’re looking for a title that digs deep with its narrative and how it discusses its various themes, then this could be a game to put on your wish list, and we’ll find out more when our full review comes out soon.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau will launch on April 23, 2024, on the PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and the PC.

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