I do love me a good metroidvania game, especially those with a rhythmic tempo to combat (I’ll love you always, Hollow Knight) or an intriguingly unfamiliar world rich with story that I want to spend hours uncovering (looking at you, Iconoclasts). Tales of Kenzera: Zau may deliver on both fronts, with the demo of the first hour of the game hiding snippets of lore amongst its beautiful levels and offering a taste of the dance-like movements of its combo-focused combat. It’s still too early to say definitively, but I think there could be a great game here.
Tales of Kenzera is a 2.5D metroidvania developed by Surgent Studios, which was founded by Abubakar Salim (best known in the gaming industry for voicing Bayek in Assassin’s Creed Origins). You play as Zau, a young man on a journey alongside Kalunga, the god of death. Zau utilizes twin masks that represent the dual forces of the sun and the moon, each offering different combat and traversal abilities–the sun mask blesses Zau with powerful close-range attacks while the moon mask gives him long-range abilities.
Establishing the dynamic between Zau and Kalunga is the focus of the game’s opening hour. This early on, there’s not much to it that hasn’t been seen in other games. Zau is brash and impatient, teetering on arrogance, while Kalunga is a more wizened voice. What’s most intriguing about their relationship is what’s set up and potentially teased in that first hour: Zau is embarking on a quest for Kalunga that others have tried and failed at, and in return, Kalunga will bring Zau’s father back to life. But Kalunga seems too smart to go through with something that would inevitably disrupt the natural order of the world, and early conversations hint that this journey will be more a learning experience for Zau than anything else.
There’s a lot of heart to be found in the first hour of Tales of Kenzera’s story, and you can feel how Salim’s experience with grieving the loss of his father to cancer bleeds into his performance as Zau. “When I was doing Assassin’s Creed… there was a form of grief there that really kind of came across in a way of anger and a way of vengeance,” Salim told me. “And I think, it is one of those [stories] where it is one perspective, and it worked in that setting and it worked for that character. But I think what I really wanted to do was be in the driving seat and tell a perspective of grief that was honest to me, and that was honest in regards to a sense of the journey that I’ve gone through. And I feel like, especially just how messy, and how chaotic and crazy grief is; it isn’t one shade, it’s multiple, and depending on where you take it from, that’s also part and parcel of it all.”
Salim has pointed to his experience in tabletop gaming as an inspiration for Tales of Kenzera’s story as well–actual play juggernaut Critical Role is even supporting the project, working alongside Surgent Studios in the game’s creation. “The beauty of what I find with a lot of tabletop games–especially like Dungeons & Dragons, Blades in the Dark–is just how rich and open these worlds are and just how you can escape into them and lose yourself,” Salim said. “And there’s a magic to them that you as a player really can escape in: There is a sense of agency that is conjured and created through [role-play] which I really wanted to emulate when it came to creating this game, this idea of trying to avoid elements that felt too gamey–everything felt like it had a purpose or that you were on a quest or that you were driving towards something.”
He continued: “Critical Role are good friends–we’ve worked together in this industry several times. And the one thing that I’ve really respected is how well they’ve listened to their community and built their community simply because of this love, their love of storytelling. When I approached them with this idea of [Tales of Kenzera: Zau] and what I wanted to do with it and essentially also forming the studio and forming this space that felt stable and there was a form of structure, they just essentially mentored and guided me in that space. They’ve really been real champions in regards to not only helping me on the elements of the business standpoint but also on the conjuring of [narrative] elements and bits and pieces of story here and there, which has been really, really lovely and I feel blessed.”
I’m very interested to see how the dynamic between Zau and Kalunga develops in Tales of Kenzera, especially with tabletop role-playing inspiring the story. I’m also excited to get my hands on the full game to explore combat encounters past the first hour. The first few fights in Tales of Kenzera aren’t very fast and only feature two to three enemy types at a time–presumably to get the player accustomed to the controls–but the mechanics allow for precise attacks, and Zau can nimbly dash, juggle targets, pull off incredible-looking combos, and quickly heal.
The implication that I got is that combat gets a lot more frenetic over time, leaning into Zau’s rhythmic movements, which I hope is true. I enjoyed bashing enemies into walls with Zau’s sun melee combos before quickly transitioning to the moon mask to snipe the target and keep them airborne and then dashing forward while transitioning back to the sun mask and unleashing a supernova column of fire–but it was a bit too easy when there’s only one or two slow-moving enemies to deal with at a time. I want the challenge of juggling multiple targets at once and quickly moving between them, reacting to their movements so that I can skillfully stunlock the group into a beautiful dance of death.
The reveal trailer for Tales of Kenzera implies that I will get that, plus huge boss battles, but those moments just weren’t in the demo. But what I did get to play excites me. The African mythology and tabletop role-playing that informs Zau and Kalunga’s dynamic poses interesting questions that I want to see answered, and the bones of the combat mechanics are solid. Tales of Kenzera: Zau could be great; it just needs to deliver on what its demo seems to be laying down.
Tales of Kenzera: Zau is scheduled to launch for Xbox Series X|S, PS5, Switch, and PC on April 23.