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'Tales of Kenzera: ZAU': A deep story about grief leavened by satisfying gameplay

Protagonist Zau, flanked by the Masks of the Moon and Sun he'll use to fight through the enchanting world of Kenzera.
Surgent Studios
Protagonist Zau, flanked by the Masks of the Moon and Sun he'll use to fight through the enchanting world of Kenzera.

The new video game Tales of Kenzera: ZAU opens with two grieving sons and a cleverly framed narrative.

You start with Zuberi, a young man in an afro-futurist city, reading the story of Zau in a book his father left him before his demise.

Moments later, you're transported through the story to the mythic past, watching Zau as he cries out, demanding that Kalunga, God of Death, restore his own fallen father to life. Kalunga appears to him, but not as a grim reaper might. Rather, he's a no-nonsense older man who tasks Zau with putting three Great Spirits to rest in return for his dad's life.

Zau then journeys through fantastical biomes that range from deserts to jungles to volcanoes, all while he and Kalunga debate the meaning of the pain and death they encounter on the way. It's an odyssey through grief and a lesson in the power we wield in the face of indescribable loss.

Kalunga upbraids Zau for his rash behavior.
/ Surgent Studios
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Surgent Studios
Kalunga upbraids Zau for his rash behavior.

British actor Abubakar Salim, who voices Zau and Zuberi, provides a poignant performance that carries the story. Known for playing the protagonist of Assassin's Creed Origins, Salim founded developer Surgent Studios and based Tales of Kenzera: ZAU on the experience of losing his father. The game captures Salim's Kenyan roots and sheds light on the Bantu culture he cherishes.

Learning from the best

Salim has cited modern classics like Hollow Knight and Ori and the Will of the Wisps as inspiring the game's action gameplay. It's a sleek and smaller-scale "Metroidvania," so named because Nintendo's Metroid and Konami's Castlevania set the early template for the genre.

ZAU has all the staples. It's got characteristically sprawling levels that require you to backtrack to discover secrets enabled by new power-ups. But it's also got frictionless movement, frantic combat, and a lush soundtrack that soars in the game's dramatic boss fights.

From enemies like the Tokoloshe and Kongamato, which represent chaos and brutality, to the Kivulian Woodlands, home to one of three Great Spirits Zau must subdue, the game presents a fierce and entrancing ecosystem. Thankfully, Zau's Masks of the Sun and Moon give him the firepower and speed he needs to overcome each challenge. You can switch between them at the tap of a button: the Moon offers quick ranged attacks, while the Sun enables heavier melee strikes. Brutish enemies with Spiritual Overshields require you to mix and match between the Sun or Moon to take them down.

Zau, overwhelmed by one of the game's awe-inspiring, wayward Great Spirits.
/ Surgent Studios
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Surgent Studios
Zau, overwhelmed by one of the game's awe-inspiring, wayward Great Spirits.

There is a skill tree, but it's pretty spare — both Sun and Moon paths have seven skills to choose from, requiring Shaman Points gained from bludgeoning the life out of baddies. Doing so will also fill up to two energy meters. You can spend one to heal or two to unleash ultimate attacks: the Sun Mask's Supernova summons a flaming tornado, while the Moon Mask's Lunar Blast takes a page out of Iron Man's book with a laser that cuts across the screen. While the game suffers from poor enemy variety, this combat system is simple and nearly perfect. I wish it gave you a slightly larger window to cancel attacks with a dash.

Zipping around the game is nearly as smooth as its visuals. Early on, Zau races forward with a double jump and air dash. Later, he'll find a hook shot and powers like Tshukudu's Might, a special ability that allows him to burst forward to destroy barriers between levels. While the game could have benefited from better navigation features to assist with backtracking, like the snapshot system in this year's Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown, it's a joy to explore.

Laying to rest

Through the game's four acts, Zau helps the characters he encounters, with each embodying a response to grief. It could be a young girl hoping to reunite with a lost Spirit, an exhausted warrior trying to find his missing son or a weary fellow shaman searching vainly for the ingredients to a restorative tonic. Throughout it all, Zau contends with Kalunga, God of Death, resisting his proffered wisdom as he seeks to do things his way. Each time, Zau finds healing, but rarely in the manner he expects.

Zau, exploring one of Kenzera's many haunting, beautiful locations.
/ Surgent Studios
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Surgent Studios
Zau, exploring one of Kenzera's many haunting, beautiful locations.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU isn't the first game to examine grief, but it's a standout among stories featuring Afro-futurism. It's tender with its protagonist and the restless spirits fighting him until they all come to terms with the weight of life, death and loss. The symbolism infused into masks, weapons and architecture speaks to the care Surgent Studios took in translating Bantu culture into a fantasy video game.

This journey transforms Zau and, through him, Zuberi. That meta structure invites players to consider how they'd deal with loss. Fortunately, I still have my father, but the game reminded me that our time is short. Tales of Kenzera: ZAU's brilliance comes from pairing this memento mori with a satisfying, familiar game genre. Even though it may not be as innovative as other Metroidvanias, its heart-rending acting and peerless presentation add up to a game I'll be thinking about for years to come.

James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this review. contributed to this story

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Jamal Michel
Jamal Michel is a freelance writer whose work focuses on video game culture, entertainment and the stories in between them. He is currently a member of the Life Kit and It's Been a Minute teams.