Tales of Kenzera: ZAU review — The universal experience of grief wears the mask of a metroidvania in this emotional tale

Grief is the price we pay for love, but what price would you pay to bring that loved one back again?

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU screenshots
(Image: © Windows Central)

Windows Central Verdict

Zau's journey with grief is compounded by his desire to be a valued member of his society, and to fill the empty footsteps left behind by his father's death. Surgent Studio's efforts to twist the heartbreaking experience of a son mourning his father with metroidvania style gameplay gives homage to how one person's time with grief is not always linear. Just as grief presents new challenges, we learn new tools to cope with the obstacles. It is an excellent juxtaposition that is marred with some frustrating technical issues and the need for just a bit more polish.


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    Metroidvania gameplay broken down into acts.

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    Mask mechanic provides interesting opportunities for puzzles.

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    Beautiful level and character design.


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    Visual stuttering and lighting issues on Xbox Series X.

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    Character becomes temporarily stun-locked after closing menus.

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Tales of Kenzera: Zau was first announced at the end of 2023 on the stage of The Game Awards with Abubakar Salim of Surgent Studios. Salim, known previously for his voice work in Assassin's Creed: Origins, spoke positively of his father's encouragement for gaming in his formative years on that stage, and detailed how he had begun to develop a game to help come to terms with the ongoing grief from his father's passing. 

"I took the biggest risk of my life and threw everything that I had at making a game. A piece of art that honored him. An ode to the people that we have loved and lost." Salim said at 2023 The Game Awards, as he choked back the cracks in his voice. "I hope you like it."

Salim's emotion at that reveal struck me in a way that other game reveals have not. I lost my own father more than 2 decades ago, and I recognized the look on his face as one that has stared back at me from my mirror in the years since I experienced that loss myself. While playing Tales of Kenzera: ZAU, that experience continued to flood back. The loss of a parent is a near-universal experience, an inevitability that we can not escape, and that makes the story told within the 2.5D metroidvania of Tales of Kenzera: ZAU one that all of us can resonate with on some scale. 

How do we grieve when we are forced to say goodbye to those we love, and what happens when we can not accept that grief?

What is Tales of Kenzera: ZAU?

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is the first game from the media company, Surgent Studio, founded by former Assassin's Creed: Origins voice actor Abubakar Salim. While the studio has previously released films including Essex Girls (2023) and Things I Never Told My Father (2022), Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is the first video game from this collective of creators. The game is published as an EA Original, a program from EA that helps to provide funding, resources, and promotion for unique indie games from promising up-and-coming studios. Tales of Kenzera: ZAU joins other successful titles published by the EA Originals program, including Hazelight Studios' hit It Takes Two and Zoink's Lost in Random.

The game follows Zau, a young Shaman grappling with the recent loss of his father. Equipped with masks of the Moon and Sun, players can guide Zau on his journey with Kalunga, the god of Death, as Zau attempts to prove his worth and bring his father back to life. 

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU review — The good

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU blends the struggles of overcoming grief with metroidvania gameplay. (Image credit: Windows Central)

Love and loss are universal experiences, but the way we learn to process that grief is unique to all of us. Tales of Kenzera: ZAU takes us through one person's particular journey coping with the loss of a father, and while their journey is their individual experience, it still remains a relatable tale that many of us can find a piece of ourselves in. Our protagonist, Zau, is deeply impacted by his father's recent passing when the game begins. Zau is ultimately torn between wanting to grow as a capable Shaman worthy of taking his father's place within his community to doubting his ability to live without his father present. 

In grappling with that second conundrum, Zau runs off to find Kalunga, God of the Dead. Drawing on inspiration from Bantu mythology, Kalunga becomes a guide for Zau in his time of need. He ultimately makes a deal with the young Shaman that if Zau can complete his quests, he will return Zau's father to the living. Equipped with his father's masks which provide power from the Sun and Moon, Zau sets off on his journey of self-discovery, growth, and grief with the god of death at his side.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is broken down into individual acts, with Act 1 starting things off fairly simple, introducing the game's platforming mechanics. The masks, too, require a little explaining, as the power of the sun (represented as orange) and the power of the moon (represented as blue) provide different abilities for Zau to use to overcome obstacles in his travels. Like any good metroidvania, players must find and acquire the abilities and tools Zau needs to overcome his grief by exploring the 2.5D map. 

It's this juxtaposition between exploration and the emotional journey that makes Tales of Kenzera special. Like with natural grief, there are times when Zau is going to face obstacles that he doesn't have the ability to overcome. Just as emotions can come flooding out early on, Zau must deal with finding his way past towering waterfalls. A small but powerful stone grants him the ability to freeze the rushing water so that he can traverse over it. There's also an element of acceptance that sometimes you just aren't ready to get beyond a barrier. And you must come back to that barrier once the coordinating ability is unlocked if you want to see what is on the other side of it. Daring to go off the beaten path doesn't just reward the player with new abilities, either. Additional story context can also be found with exploration.

The beauty of all of it is that this is a style of gameplay that is familiar to most gamers. Metroidvanias are an indie-gaming staple, but using one to tell the non-linear story of grief is a unique approach that I can't help but appreciate. 

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU review — The bad

Heartache and grief form the basis of a relatable tale mixed with Bantu mythology. (Image credit: Windows Central)

Before I lob any criticism at this game, I want to acknowledge that this was clearly a labor of love. It oozes passion and heart from every aspect of its surface. It is a universally relatable story, told through interesting parallels in gameplay, with a unique mythos basis that is rarely (if ever?) explored in gaming. Furthermore, it's also a major first step for a studio to release a game of this caliber as their freshman effort. There are a lot of things Tales of Kenzera has right, but there are still a few missteps to acknowledge. 

I played the game on Steam and on Xbox Series X for the sake of this review, and on both platforms, there were some significant issues with the character becoming stun-locked. The issue was prevalent any time I opened the menu, whether I was attributing skill points or checking a codex entry. When I returned to the game, the character would be locked into place and unable to move except for a jump. After a couple of jumps, I could dash into one of two directions and be free to move again. 

While this was little more than a minor inconvenience during exploration, it did become more problematic during combat sequences. If I had to hit pause or go into the skill tree to remind myself of the button sequence for a certain skill, I would risk being killed by enemies while stun-locked once I started the game back. This issue was persistent on the console and PC versions of the game.

In addition to the stun-lock, there was also an issue with lighting present in the Xbox Series X version of the game that was not evident in the Steam version. Early in the game, areas that had particle effects and lighting related to those effects would have large flashing auras temporarily that blocked parts of the screen. This also expanded to areas with noticeable light rays coming through windows or trees. The effect did remain on some characters, even blotting them out completely at times with strobing light spots, but the effect was lessened in severity and frequency as the game progressed.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU review — Should you buy it?

Zau is challenged not only in his grief but in his role as a Shaman for his tribe. (Image credit: Windows Central)

The loss of a parent, inevitable as it may be, has lasting effects on the generation left behind. Video games have never really been shy about approaching these sorts of topics, but it is a little rare to see one that is so open about the emotional ramifications of loss. Not only do we see Zau grapple with letting go, but with coming into his own and growing to fill the void his father's absence has left behind. 

That is a special sort of tale that gets glossed over all too often on its own. But Surgent Studios goes out of its way to wrap this heartbreaking tale up in Bantu mythology, and to set it in this visually stunning world that begs for you to experience every nook and cranny of it. The downside is that, for all of its beauty and raw emotion, Tales of Kenzera: ZAU still has some kinks to iron out post-launch. One day-one patch was applied during the review period, and I'm optimistic that more will be on the way to help apply the polish and bug fixes that this game genuinely needs. I would recommend playing on PC as it seems to be the better option for now.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU will be available on April 23 for $20 on Xbox Series X|S, Steam, Epic Game Store, Nintendo Switch, and PlayStation. There is no indication that it will be available as part of Xbox Game Pass on day one. However, it could come to the service later when it joins EA Play. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers have access to EA Play at no additional cost.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU | $20 on Xbox

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU | $20 on Xbox

Journey through the heartache and grief of loss, learn the ways of the Shaman, and discover Bantu mythology in this 2.5D metroidvania from Surgent Studios and EA Originals.

Also available: $20 (Steam) | $18 (Epic Games Store) | $20 PlayStation

Cole Martin

Cole is the resident Call of Duty know-it-all and indie game enthusiast for Windows Central. She's a lifelong artist with two decades of experience in digital painting, and she will happily talk your ear off about budget pen displays.