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GINX TV > Reviews > Tales of Kenzera: ZAU

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU Review: An Evocative Platformer Balancing Beauty And Fluidity

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU offers a guiding hand through one of life’s greatest tragedies with engaging and tender gameplay, and a remarkable soundtrack.
Tales of Kenzera: ZAU Review: An Evocative Platformer Balancing Beauty And Fluidity

To me, Tales of Kenzera: ZAU plays as classically as they come. A platformer that strikes a near-perfect balance between challenging and engaging, elevated by a powerful story that sees a young boy come to terms with the death of his beloved father. While a tale of grief isn’t an uncommon one, what sets Tales of Kenzera apart is the setting in which this tale is told. Few games have explored the environment and cultures of Africa, and even fewer have portrayed it with such awe and vibrancy. Zau’s story is artfully represented in the biomes he traverses, the powers he unlocks, and the history and mythology behind each. 

What sets Zau on his journey is his will to bring his father back from the dead, striking a deal with the God of Death, Kalunga. Zau must bring to rest three great spirits that have cheated death, a task that takes him across the lands of Kenzera, and face-to-face with his own struggles. A simple premise, but one presented with experience and an understanding of just how complicated the feelings explored can be. 

Ethereal Environments

There's a great level of detail in every frame. (Picture: Surgent Studios, screenshot: Alexandra Hobbs)

It can’t be overstated that the game is stunning. For the ambience and environments alone, Tales of Kenzera: Zau is worth experiencing. Each biome you visit carries a distinctive theme and visual, but the impact of grief threads through each one largely represented by the color purple. It’s this color in which Zau is adorned, and finds its way into each environment regardless of palette. The design of each area you visit presents striking depth within the game’s side-scrolling style, from sprawling plains in the distance, to layers of foliage in the jungles. You get a sense of the wider lands of Kenzera, and a wish to explore them further. 

Bantu inspiration can be felt in every aspect of Tales of Kenzera: ZAU, including the design of enemies reflecting that of traditional Bantu art and artifacts. The music itself is a feat, involving over 120 musicians in the creation of the game’s evocative soundtrack, focusing on the diversity of African musicians. You feel the rhythm and the depth as Zau faces his challenges, and how it lingers on significant moments, be it respite or unease. 

A Dance Of Two Masks

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Zau's abilities will help him traverse even the most difficult environments. (Picture: Surgent Studios)

Combat in Tales of Kenzera: Zau hinges on two styles, each depicted by a Mask. The Mask of the Sun is Zau’s close combat attack, and imbued with fire. You’ll use this to plant combo melee attacks on enemies or erupt into a devastating fiery cyclone in Zau’s ultimate ability while in this form. The Mask of the Moon is Zau’s ranged attack, and one that deals ice damage. With this, Zau can direct attacks to out of reach foes, or freeze them in place. His ultimate in this form deals an almost Kamehameha-type attack on anything caught in the beam.

Switching between the two styles is fast and seamless, and you’ll need to utilize both to effectively take down enemies. You can further expand on these two styles by progressing through the skill tree, one for each Mask. These offer upgrades such as increasing the effectiveness of Zau’s ultimate attack, or offering a slight enhancement to a basic attack (e.g. increasing the number of ranged projectiles available before initiating the cooldown).


You can expand on Zau's abilities through two skill trees. (Picture: Surgent Studios, screenshot: Alexandra Hobbs)

If I were to have any wishes for Tales of Kenzera’s combat, it would be for even more ways to expand on Zau’s abilities. The skill tree feels slightly too limited. There are very few ways to enhance Zau’s natural attributes outside of maximum health, which you do by resting under Baobub trees. Ways to enhance Zau’s core strength or defensive stats would help the combat to feel next level, and perhaps help enemy encounters past Act 2 feel like less of a chore. While I started off strong, taking on every group of enemies I could, I found myself dashing past the optional encounters in later Acts. I felt that I wasn’t dealing enough damage for the fight to feel consistently satisfying, and struggles were generally taking longer, even after almost maxing out the skill trees. This was on the game’s regular, “Balanced” difficulty. Tales of Kenzera: ZAU features three difficulty modes which can be changed at any time to suit a player’s needs: Relaxed, Balanced, and Challenging.

Earn Your Strength

Some of Zau's hardest trials come in the form of Challenge Gauntlets. (Picture: Surgent Studios, screenshot: Alexandra Hobbs)

There are other perks that Zau can acquire that aid in combat, however. Hidden behind Challenge Gauntlets, Zau must complete mini trials in order to obtain a Trinket — an accessory that grants a handy affect, such as charging Zau's Spirit gauge if he takes damage. These gauntlets are often a test of a player’s reactions and puzzle solving and offer some of the most challenging puzzles in the game. You’ll experience just enough frustration through these trials to make the rewards taste that much sweeter. These are optional, however — but a hard challenge to pass up. They feel akin to classic platformers of the PS1-era, and you'll easily sink in some additional hours trying to master them all.

Zau’s abilities aren’t limited to just enemy encounters, however. Like any good platformer, players must learn how best to proceed and overcome obstacles, and Zau’s abilities are often the key solution. Be it freezing water to create a climbable waterfall, or disassembling mechanical barriers only to rebuild them to make new pathways. There’s depth to the game’s puzzle solving and traversal that help establish a noticeably fluid rhythm. 

Verdict 4.5/5

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(Picture: Surgent Studios)

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is a game you experience rather than simply play. It invites you to share in its emotional story and vibrant setting, offering you the chance to enjoy something new under the banner of a Metroidvania-style platformer. Even if this genre of game isn’t to your usual tastes, what it offers on top of that is worth your time.

The only shortcomings are the limitations of combat, where you might find yourself looking for deeper progression and more satisfying encounters. But this is easily forgiven by the game’s obvious strengths; fluid gameplay, challenging puzzles, and a heart wrenching story — all wrapped up in a roughly 8 hour journey that will rest with you for far longer. My hope is that Tales of Kenzera: ZAU inspires other developers to explore the stories of Africa with as much love as Surgent Studios. I’m certainly yearning for more.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU launches on April 23, 2024 for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, and PC. A PC code was provided for review by the publisher.