Tales of Kenzera: Zau has the heart to heighten its spin on the metroidvania

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«Baba…help me Baba…I need you Baba….» So says protagonist Zau at the start of Tales of Kenzera, his voice shaking. That’s the voice of Abubakar Salim (Assassin’s Creed: Origins), who founded Surgent Studios to create this game as he deals with the loss of his own father.

When he says those words, it doesn’t feel like he’s acting.

It’s this raw, personal edge that lifts Tales of Kenzera above the usual influx of indie metroidvanias. The game’s reveal at last year’s The Game Awards was one of the more memorable moments of the show as Salim shared the poignant story of playing games with his father. It’s this personal history with gaming that’s inspired Tales of Kenzera and its paralleling father-son relationship. Playing the demo as part of Steam Next Fest is a striking experience.

The titular Zau is a shaman, able to wield the masks of the moon and sun for great abilities. But, as he points out himself, ‘how does a shaman perform his duties when he is the one in need of healing?’ And so he summons Kalunga, the God of Death, and vows to shepherd three Great Spirits to reclaim the soul of his father.

Zau is grief-stricken yet headstrong, charging into danger purely out of love for his Baba. Kalunga, meanwhile, is a surprisingly caring deity who proceeds to guide Zau on his quest — he is something of a father figure who berates Zau for his recklessness, pushes and questions him, and provides some comic banter too.

It’s clear just from the demo this touching and honest father-son relationship is the heart of the game and stems from Salim’s deep personal experience, pairing intimate characterisation with a grand quest. I look forward to seeing Zau grow with or without the guidance of Kalunga.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau Screenshot showing Zau converse with his father in a pink gem-infused tunnel

Tales of Kenzera: Zau Screenshot showing Zau converse with his father outside amongst silhouetted trees and a glowing purple sky

Image credit: EA

Beyond that, this tale is straightforward and solid metroidvania fare as Zau double jumps and dashes his way through themed environments. It’s Ori and Hollow Knight — very good inspirations, let’s be honest — by way of Afro-fantasy. And those aforementioned masks come into play during combat. With the moon mask, Zau can shoot magical blasts like a pistol, while the sun mask provides powerful melee hits. Battles have strategy, then, as Zau swaps between masks, dives behind enemies, and unleashes blasts of power through special attacks. It’s smooth and satisfying, with room for higher difficulty later in the game — the demo sadly doesn’t include any bosses but I’m hoping the full game will include some suitably ferocious, distinct, and creative challenges.

Any metroidvania worth its salt requires some unique abilities and Tales of Kenzera has that potential too. The demo only includes one, but it allows Zau to freeze rivers and waterfalls to provide new pathways and wall-jumping possibilities — fittingly he’s swept along an underground river and must find a way to escape. I’m certainly intrigued to see what other powers are on the way and how they fit into the Bantu-inspired African folklore and mythological setting. It’s this that lifts the game further, providing a fresh aesthetic rarely seen in gaming, underpinned by authenticity and raw emotion.

More Next Fest coverage: Ian samples some new VR demos.Watch on YouTube

Could 2024 be the year of great metroidvanias? It’s only February and we’ve already had Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown and Ultros (plus the tantalising prospect of — whisper it — Silksong). Tales of Kenzera looks to slot in neatly.

This piece is part of Wishlisted, a week-long series on Eurogamer covering some of our favourite games from February 2024’s Steam Next Fest. You can read all the other pieces from the series at our Wishlisted hub.

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