Tales of Kenzera: ZAU Review – A rare tale

Reviewed May 5, 2024 on PS5


PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5, Xbox Series X|S


April 23, 2024


Electronic Arts


Surgent Studios

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is the debut project of Surgent Studios, a multimedia studio created by Abubakar Salim, who voiced protagonist Bayek in Assassin’s Creed Origins. The titular Zau is a young shaman who journeys through a short but tight Metroidvania world to return his beloved dad (‘baba‘) from the land of death. Inspired by Salim’s own journey of grief stemming from the death of his father from cancer, the game offers a rare portrayal of genuine African mythology, traditions, and culture, as well as a solid Metroidvania experience.

Tales of Kenzera is actually a tale within a tale. In a futuristic African city, a young man called Zuberi reads through a book manuscript written by his recently deceased father to try to find meaning in his grief.  It is within this manuscript that the game is set, about a young shaman (a spiritual healer) who embarks on a quest to help the god of death find three wayward spirits of nature who have refused to pass on to the spirit world. In return, the god of death will return to him his deceased father. It’s a simple but effective story about dealing with grief, with enough emotional beats to make me tear up a few times. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before, but knowing that it’s inspired by something personal lends it that something extra.

In terms of gameplay, Tales of Kenzera is a really solid example of a Metroidvania, and achieves most things that all great Metroidvanias do. Zau controls smoothly in both his movement and combat as you explore a handful of vibrant environments, such as abandoned settlements, blazing deserts, moody swamps, and crystal caves. By switching between his Sun and Moon masks mid-combat, he can fluidly switch between heavy-hitting melee combat and long-range projectiles to suit the situation, which adds an extra challenge to combat scenarios with multiple different kinds of enemies. There’s some nice use of haptic feedback as hits connect, and combat feels fair and balanced the whole way through. It’s not crushingly difficult, but it still strikes a good balance so it doesn’t feel like you can simply breeze through without a challenge.

With everything that Kenzera does right, it reveals its own formula a little too easily, making it hard to get truly excited about progressing the game. For my money, the most exciting aspect of a Metroidvania is the discovery element, the idea that I might stumble onto the critical path while trying to find the next cool power-up, or vice versa. I love running past areas I can’t access and getting excited to find the power-up that finally lets me go back and access those areas for all the sweet, sweet upgrades they potentially contain.

Tales of Kenzera just doesn’t have enough of this, in part because of its power-up mechanics. Most nooks and crannies just contain a pocket of Ulogi, the energy Zau can spend to upgrade his existing pool of abilities. Some of them come with a nice proverb or philosophical quote, which is nice, but it’s hard to get excited to explore when I know exactly what I’m going to find. The few brand-new skills that are found within the world are all placed in obvious, unmissable locations, so even they don’t require any exploration to find.

This issue extends into the critical path, too. Zau and his companion, Kalunga, the god of death, have to take frequent detours to find keys to open locked gates that block their path. It’s not exactly an inventive roadblock to put in the player’s way in the first place, but after the second time it happens, you just know it’s going to happen again. The game doesn’t seem content to let the player find their own path, instead preferring to have Kalunga explain every step of the journey to Zau.

This didn’t totally detract from my experience, but it limited my investment in exploring the world and ultimately meant that while I passively enjoyed the journey as a whole, I didn’t feel that accomplishment that I felt from Metroidvania masterpieces like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or Hollow Knight.

Tales of Kenzera looks gorgeous, using a combination of vibrant colours and atmospheric shadows to make everything pop. Bosses especially are highly detailed and exciting to look at and fight. Zau himself looks striking with his glowing neon masks in the foreground, while the background contains multiple parallax layers filled with details.  This makes it even more of a shame that there aren’t more things to find and interact with within the world, because it seems as if there should be a fair share of forgotten treasures or even the odd NPC or two. Still, it’s a great backdrop for the action in the foreground, which is the focus of this game anyway.

“Tales of Kenzera looks gorgeous, using vibrant colours and atmospheric shadows to make everything pop.”

Some moments reveal signs of its smaller budget, or maybe a tighter development schedule. This is mostly only noticeable in the few cutscene animations, where there are no attempts at lip movement and sudden cuts that avoid showing complicated movement. In all fairness, if it came down to choosing to polish up the gameplay or the cutscenes, it was definitely the best idea to choose the gameplay. And make no mistake, the gameplay does feel very polished indeed.

Bantu culture in the spotlight

Pre-colonial African cultures, of which there are many, historically haven’t gotten much limelight in video games, beyond appearing in series with multicultural or global settings like Sid Meier’s Civilisation. Their imagery has often been borrowed or emulated for the sake of a cool theme; think the enemies in Donkey Kong Country Returns, or the African drumbeats that accompany virtually any soundtrack set in a jungle. There is only one other time I can remember playing a shaman in a video game, and that’s Mumbo from the Banjo Kazooie series — and he’s not exactly a respectful representation.

This is why it’s so important, not to mention refreshing, that Tales of Kenzera draws from real African culture with a creative lead who has personal ties to the continent. The inspiration shows in multiple ways:  from the focus on spiritual healing and spirits, to the mythological creatures Zau fights along the way, to the soundtrack, which integrates modern synth sounds into traditional African music and singing. I recommend playing with Swahili voice performances to totally immerse yourself in the world. Besides, how often do you get to hear an African language spoken in video games?

While it doesn’t offer anything new in terms of gameplay, Tales of Kenzera: ZAU’s shorter runtime ensures that the game ends before you really start to feel the gameplay getting stale. And at its lower price point, it doesn’t feel like a ripoff.




  • Combat and exploration controls feel tight and responsive
  • 10-hour playtime doesn't overstay its welcome
  • Heartfelt story that tugs on the heartstrings
  • Art direction and music from a culture that doesn't see much limelight


  • Not enough reasons to explore the vibrant map
  • Doesn't offer anything new as a Metroidvania

Tales of Kenzara: ZAU is a strong debut title for Surgent Studios, offering a short but solid Metroidvania experience. It’s limited by its small scope, and is a little formulaic, but that won’t stop you from enjoying the tight combat and gorgeous visuals. Pick this one up and enjoy the heartfelt, emotional story in a beautifully rendered setting that doesn’t see enough limelight.