Tales of Kenzera: Zau Review - Screenshot 1 of 4

Abubakar Salim, yes the coolest Assassin's Creed protagonist from the best AC game, created quite the stir at The Game Awards back in 2021 when he announced his directorial debut with Tales of Kenzera: ZAU. Here was a Metroidvania with a very personal premise to back up it's action, action that takes place within a vivid and vital African setting. Everyone got very, very excited, but now that it's here, is it actually any good?

Well, yes, it actually is any good thanks! It's very good in places, in fact, although there are a few issues that hold it back from true Metroidvania greatness. Tales of Kenzara: ZAU is an action platformer that isn't interested in reinventing any technical wheels, let's get that out of the way straight up. The ebb and flow of how you bound across the game's 6-8hr running time never throws up any huge surprises, you'll have done it all before in one of the many other games this one pays such close attention to, and if you're looking for something that raises the bar in terms of gameplay like the Axiom Verge series or the recent Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown, this ain't it. But that's OK, because very few games are!

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Regardless of any shortcomings it may have in terms of delivering new mechanics, this is a strong debut for Salim's newly established Surgent Studios. It plays well, it looks and sounds great, and most importantly, it absolutely gives you your platforming fix. It borrows some of our favourite types of combat from the genre too. Where the bounding around and using various unlockable powers to gain access to new areas can be a little too straightforward for our liking, the combat does smooth over a lot of this by being surprisingly intense at points. Now, don't get us wrong, this isn't [INSERT VERY DIFFICULT GAME THAT MAKES YOU LOOK HARD ONLINE], but for the gentleness of its platforming and the warming palette of its world, these scraps don't half turn the tempo up when they occur.

Tales of Kenzera isn't afraid to throw enemies at you, it locks you into small arenas and quickly hits you with wave after wave of them actually, and you'll need to combine quick air/ground dodges whilst switching between Zau's magical Sun and Moon masks at just the right time to take down their barriers and dish out damage. Remember Outland on the Xbox 360? Well, think of how you switched up between light and dark to do damage there, or how you do the same with polarities in Ikaruga. It has a nice intensity to it, the mixing of elements giving you just enough to think about while you jump, slash and blast opponents with sun and moon damage, constantly shifting to avoid getting trapped or stuck in a corner.

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Whilst in sun form, Zau becomes a melee-focused fighter, blades blazing, it's all about combos and getting in quick, whittling down any armour barriers and finishing the job. Moon on the other hand, which can be switched to with a quick press of LB, gives you ranged options, allowing you to get a little distance and even do cool stuff like freeze suckers in mid-air once you've started pumping some skill points into both of your small power skill trees. Those skill trees really are small too, just one each of your elemental forms, and again we consider this a bit of a win. We've had enough of spending more time in the menus than the game so little to no upgrades is fantastic, thanks.

Oh, and in a similarly positive development, there are very few collectibles here, and they pretty much all pertain to the story and aren't hard to find, so you don't have to spend ages messing around finding all this stuff that doesn't matter. It helps the flow, it keeps you locked into Zau's plight. Good news, unless you enjoy artificially extending everything to 80 hours longer than necessary.

There are some niggling issues with the combat, as much as we've enjoyed it. It's all quite small-scale, enemy variety isn't quite there and it can get a bit messy given the small size of the arenas you square off in, but it works for the most part. And really, whilst Tales of Kenzera: ZAU doesn't reinvent the wheel in these ways, its real strength, and the one place where it does switch things up, is in how it puts its story, its world and its message front and centre. Very often the storyline - in even the best and most highly-regarded of platform games - can be little more than a couple of grunts from non-specified NPCs as you progress. Here, Salim digs deep into the emotion of the loss of his father to give us a magical tale, a genuinely uplifting piece of art that will absolutely resonate with anyone who has lost someone. And hey, that's all of us, we all have to live it, and it's a brave thing to do it in public this way.

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We aren't going to ruin the ins and outs of the short story that plays out between the titular Zau and the God of Death, well, beyond the fact that you need to bring him the souls of three monsters in order for him to bring your old man back to life. However, what's here is so steeped in incredibly vivid and expressive African culture, so full of fun little asides and conversations between characters, that it's kinda hard not to get into its groove once that groove has got you. The excellent soundtrack from Nainita Desai also helps in this regard, as too do all of the cast's fabulous performances. There are some lovely little moments here, the kind of stuff that really hits home and they deliver every line of it impeccably.

In terms of performance, we had no notable issues on Series X as you'd expect really and, at the end of the day, what you've got here is a heartfelt and very real exploration of grief wrapped up in stories and lessons from an utterly absorbing culture. Yes it's not gonna set the world on fire mechanically, but it plays a decent game (and this writer came away thinking about his own very troubled relationship with his dad, and a whole lot of other things besides, that gave me a genuine real-world mental boost afterwards, so hey, that's worth the low price of entry all day long in my book).


Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is a solid debut for Surgent Studios and a genuinely heartfelt and moving piece of art to boot. We love its focus on narrative aspects, and the obvious time and effort that's been put into its characters and dialogue. For anyone who's had to go through the pain of losing a family member there's a genuinely emotional and uplifting adventure to undertake here, regardless of some slight clunkiness along the way.