Tales of Kenzera: Zau Review – Spirit Over Substance

In Tales of Kenzera: Zau, the debut game from Surgent Studios, the use of the word “Tales” is more literal than it initially seems. To kick off the events of the game, protagonist Zuberi reads a book written by his late father about a place called Kenzera. He uses fiction to cope with his grief, just as the player might do with the plot of the game, and as the studio founder, who lost his father as well, did when creating the story to begin with. While combat and map design in Tales of Kenzera falters at times, this strong, emotional core was what pulled me through to the credits.

Zau is the protagonist of Zuberi’s book, and he’s who the player controls for the vast majority of the roughly eight-hour game. After his father’s passing, he goes to Kalunga, the god of death, to perform a risky exchange: defeating three great spirits to bring his father back to life. Kalunga, who simply appears as an older human man, accompanies Zau throughout his journey, providing wisdom and guidance to level Zau’s often reckless behavior. It is a stellar dynamic, and I enjoyed watching them butt heads as they struggled to deal with the other grieving characters of the game.

Zau battles his way through the world of Kenzera using the Masks of the Sun and Moon, relics gifted to him when his father passed. The Mask of the Moon has more ranged options with ice abilities, while the Mask of the Sun is melee-focused with fire abilities, and both are fun to use. Because you can flip between them at the drop of a hat, combat feels creative, giving the player the opportunity to flip to whichever stance fits them best at that moment. That said, later encounters with large crowds of enemies with regenerating health bars sometimes tested my love of the combat, with late-game combat encounters feeling like a chore purely based on how long they took.  

The game is also rife with platforming challenges that make use of all your abilities gained up until that point in the story, but since you start with a double jump and a mid-air dash, movement is a blast from the start. Many challenges involve instant-kill spikes, which can be irritating, but quick respawn times generally keep me from pulling my hair out. This is not the case in certain challenge sections and some chase sequences in story missions, which require you to make it all the way through with only a handful of checkpoints. They’re not insurmountable, though, and allow the game to test player platforming skills as well as combat skills during boss sequences.

Tales of Kenzera’s main flaw is its map and world designs, which turn a pretty good game into one that’s uninteresting and unintuitive to explore. While most games obscure sections of the map until players explore them, Tales of Kenzera opens up an entire zone as soon as you enter a biome. It’s a minor convenience for navigating through the main plot but a nightmare for figuring out where you have and haven’t been. There’s no way to mark the map or see where you’ve previously visited, save for icons that mark collected items, so in some cases, it’s actually more difficult to backtrack to find secrets.

Even then, areas are pretty linear, thanks to objective markers making sure the player always knows where to go, so most secrets are just a quick little branch into a room to the left or an alternate path to the right. On top of that, most secrets only reward a small chunk of experience points, which is useful but not particularly exciting to discover and doesn’t do much to incentivize further exploration. However, there are also meditation trees that increase your maximum health and platforming challenges to unlock stat-boosting trinkets, so it’s still worth heading down the occasional side path.

However, the most frustrating element here is a specific set of secrets: Spirit Trials. Unlike most hidden elements, these combat challenges require the player to backtrack significantly and open an ability-gated area to proceed. I enjoy secrets, but there are only three Spirit Trials in the whole game, and they are the only way to upgrade your spirit bar and trinket slots, which are vital to Zau’s abilities. It’s a baffling choice to funnel both upgrades into one area and even more puzzling to hide them away like this, especially when their existence is not mentioned until you find one. If the map allowed you to mark certain areas to revisit or had a traditional un-fogging system to see where you haven’t explored, it would be one thing, and if it were the norm for other secrets to require a little more work to find, it would be another. But when the player is neither implicitly nor explicitly incentivized to search for major upgrades, it creates a balance issue.

Despite my gripes with Spirit Trials and the map, I have a lot of respect for Tales of Kenzera: Zau, particularly in how it handles grief and self-reflection – it is one of the most thematically cohesive games I’ve ever played. Every element of gameplay and story is tied back into the dual struggle Zau and Zuberi face in coping with the loss of their respective fathers. Health upgrades come from points of meditation and the processing of emotion. Each character you encounter deals with loss in their own way, which grants perspective to Zau’s situation. Even combat upgrades represent Zau’s path to get closer to his father – if he can’t spend time with the man himself, he’ll spend time with the legacy his father left behind.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau conveys its somber themes with nuance and passion. It’s just a shame the gameplay doesn’t always match those highs, especially in a genre flooded with quality indies, because Zau’s journey – and Zuberi’s parallel journey – are stories I’ll be thinking about for quite some time

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