Tales of Kenzera: ZAU preview - grappling with death

Three statues overlooking a blue lake
(Image credit: Electronic Arts)

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is more than just your average metroidvania. The beautiful action-adventure game by Surgent Studios is a heartfelt story about one young Shaman’s journey to find his father in the face of death, translated into a challenging action-adventure platformer that sticks with you even after you’ve put it down. 

“I've always believed that games are the most powerful way of telling a story,” Abubakar Salim, the creative director of Surgent Studios, explains. “There's nothing better than actually participating in a story in the shoes of the protagonist, and going through the journey with them.” 

This message is echoed through Tales of Kenzera: ZAU as the journey takes players across the vibrant world of Kenzera. You play as a young Shaman, Zau, who has made a deal with Kalunga, the god of death, to bring his father back from the afterlife. But to fulfill his wish, Zau must first acquire all three great spirits which have, until now, evaded Kalunga. As is the way with any good journey, you’ll soon find out that it’s not about the destination but the lessons you learn along the way, as Zau comes to terms with his father’s death and learns to deal with his grief in transit. 

“I decided that I wanted to share the story inspired by my journey of grief,” Salim admits. This personal story is why Salim wanted Tales of Kenzera: ZAU to be a metroidvania, as it “is the perfect representation of what grief is. You're thrown into this world that you have no idea about, and you have to figure it out and get to grips with it as you go along.” This is precisely the experience Tales of Kenzera offers. 

Fierce fights 

Massive enemy breathing blue flames

(Image credit: Electronic Arts)

Even though the subject matter in Tales of Kenzera: ZAU may be heavy, Surgent Studios certainly didn’t pull its punches when it came to the challenging environmental traversal and nail-biting combat. 

These stories helped me piece together what kind of relationship Zau had with his father

You encounter several obstacles on your way to capturing the three great spirits. In the demo, I spent most of my time in the Bululu caverns after a mishap on a rickety bridge sent me plummeting down into the Earth’s core. These stony caverns were littered with fluorescent pink mushrooms and glowing gemstones, as well as rushing underground rivers that could sweep even the most even-keeled warrior of their feet. 

So, after being swept up by these furious currents, I found myself wandering through the forgotten caves. On my travels, I found Ulogi crystals, which I could collect and put towards leveling up various skills like recharging ammo faster and floating Gridol idols, which recounted remnants of the stories Zau used to hear from his father. These stories helped me piece together what kind of relationship our protagonist had with his father and encouraged me to go out of my way to find more hints. 

Hordes of enemies would also appear from thin air in battle rooms. These fights were the best way to hone and master the skills bestowed upon Zau by the Moon and Sun masks, which were passed down from his father. The Moon mask provides a long-range attack and can also freeze enemies and waterfalls for a short period, whereas the Sun mask is more aggressive as it lets the player get up close and personal - sending enemy warriors flying like a Smash Bros. knockout. 

“I wanted the player to be able to have an agency and freedom to switch between these two masks that represent life and death,” Salim explains. “The Sun and the Moon are especially important within Bantu cosmologies.” 

Life finds a way 

Character running on a desert path

(Image credit: Electronic Arts)

The enemies aren’t the only thing in Tales of Kenzera: ZAU that you need to be wary of. There are also some side quests in the form of puzzling obstacle courses that will test your dedication, as many require precise timing and a lot of re-dos.  

During my time navigating the Bululu caverns, I managed to find myself stuck on one particularly tricky obstacle course. Immediately forgetting about my courageous journey and the responsibilities that I had to uphold, I side-tracked myself for 15 minutes while trying to time my jumps and dashes just right so I could fly through some deadly white water rapids while dodging the jagged crystals that would kill you in one hit.  

After a terrifying number of restarts and enough shouting to warrant a noise complaint from my neighbors, I managed to beat the rapids and claim my prize of the Battering Stance. This trinket would give Zau an edge over the waves of enemies as now if I pushed them into another warrior or any wall, it would deal extra damage. It may not seem like a lot, but the joy I experienced in that short moment after what seemed like an age of rage is precisely what the experience and flurry of emotions I want from a platformer: aggravating obstacles met with generous rewards that encourage you to keep pushing forwards. 

Worth the struggle

Character fighting enemies on a bridge

(Image credit: Electronic Arts)

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is also brimming with incredible stories, many of which Salim grew up hearing about from his father. “All these mythological characters and spirits take a leaf from the core stories within Bantu cultures,” Salim says. ”But there’s also a bit of what my dad used to tell me; it always used to inspire me.”

One story that stood out to me was the tale of Bamba. After acquiring the Bamba stone, which can freeze water and enemies temporarily, you learn that this object of power was passed down by a great Shaman who sacrificed his life to save others who were fleeing raging floods. At first, Zau laughs at the idea of someone getting a shrine for just throwing a stone at some water but is quickly reprimanded by Kalunga for diminishing Bamba’s great sacrifice. This small interaction was just one of the many instances where Tales of Kenzera: ZAU proves to be a meaningful story about the journey of reconciliation and maturity. 

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU was a joy to play during the hands-on. With thrilling fights, challenging but rewarding objectives, and a story that makes you want to stop and listen rather than speed through the text. I cannot wait to jump back in and see what else there is on offer upon a full release.  

For more excellent yet difficult games, be sure to check out the best roguelike games as well as the best single-player games that are available right now. 

Elie Gould
Features Writer

Elie is a Features Writer for TechRadar Gaming, here to write about anything new or slightly weird. Before writing for TRG, Elie studied for a Masters at Cardiff University JOMEC in International Journalism and Documentaries – spending their free time filming short docs or editing the gaming section for their student publications. 

Elie’s first step into gaming was through Pokémon but they've taken the natural next step in the horror genre. Any and every game that would keep you up at night is on their list to play - despite the fact that one of Elie’s biggest fears is being chased.