Tales of Kenzera Already Feels Like a Metroidvania Classic

A classic in the making.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau
Surgent Studios

When I think of my favorite Metroidvania games, they all share a few key features: great gameplay loops, smart design, memorable bosses. But the more I think about it, the more there’s one thing that’s often distinctly missingnarrative.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau, developer Surgent Studios’ first project, feels like the game to change that. It has all the trappings of a classic Metroidvania: tight level design, smooth movement and platforming, and a compellingly unique visual identity. But tieing everything together is a poignant and personal narrative that shines at every turn. Just six hours in and I already feel like Tales of Kenzera will be one of my favorite games of the year.

Welcome to Kenzera

There’s a fascinatingly complex relationship that develops between Zau and Kalunga.

Surgent Studio

In Tales of Kenzera, you play as Zau, a young shaman who just lost his father. In the wake of that loss, Zau seeks out the god Kalunga and agrees to complete a ritual in order to bring his father back to life. This serves as the impetus for both a Metroidvania adventure that takes you through the lands of Kenzera and an exploration on the nature of grief, moving on, and dealing with the hole that now exists.

That narrative is the focal point of the game. Zau and Kalunga constantly banter back and forth as you adventure, big story moments highlight bosses or new environments, and collectibles feed into Zau’s personal tale as well as the larger narrative of the world.

Strong performances and writing root Zau’s story, but you can see his journey of grief reflected in nearly every element of the game. Venturing into Kenzera’s first area, the Highlands, Zau’s insecurities are reflected in the environment, a shattered region where the land has been ripped apart into bits floating listlessly in the air. Echoes of life can still be found, but it feels chillingly desolate. Zau technically isn’t alone on his journey (Kalunga is constantly in your ear) but thematically, it feels like a very solitary experience. It’s an effective move that was clearly intentional on Surgent Studios’ part.

“It's a ruined city,” art lead Ackeem Durrant tells Inverse. “It's going through this desolate place again by yourself, which is a theme. Even if it feels like there are people, or even if people are around you, it still can feel lonely, which is deliberate.”

Many of Kenzera’s areas feel like you just stumbled upon a recently abandoned town, a shadow of a place formerly bustling with activity.

Surgent Studio

Each environment or “biome” in Tales of Kenzera is designed to evoke some kind of emotion or a feeling that emerges while dealing with grief. These themes are then woven into smaller stories for the NPCs you meet, the dialogue, and even boss fights. A swamp-like area represents the choking fear of facing the world without a loved one or mentor, while the cracked dunes and crags of a desert represent the raw feeling that develops after emotions pass.

What I find fascinating about Tales of Kenzera so far is how openly these kinds of design choices are displayed. Sure, I interviewed the developers at Surgent Studio about their intentions, but you don’t even need that context to make it clear. Tales of Kenzera challenges you as a player to constantly engage with its themes and think about the deeper meaning its story is trying to tell, even as gameplay elements are grafted onto that story.

Gameplay and Combat

Each area in the game feels visually distinct, but also ties into the journey of Zau confronting his grief.

Surgent Studio

Tales of Kenzera is also an absolute a delight to play, with platforming and exploration that grow and change in interesting ways like the best Metroidvanias. Zau’s controls feel effortless, finding that sweet spot where you have ultimate control over his momentum and trajectory. This makes platforming a blast, especially when combined with the focus on wall jumping and some later upgrades that open up more options.

Combat feels equally great. Zau has two different sets you can swap between, corresponding with the two artifacts he obtains: the Mask of the Sun and the Mask of the Moon. The Sun mask gives you a melee combat moveset that feels similar to Prince of Persia, while the Moon mask gives you ranged options reminiscent of Samus’ abilities in Metroid. There’s a big emphasis on constantly swapping between these two styles. Some enemies have shields that correspond to the masks’ red and blue colors. Later on, with additional abilities, platforming and exploration demand that you swap between the masks even more often.

Apart from these core systems, you can also unlock additional abilities, which relate back to combat skills and exploration. Again, these elements also tie into that narrative focus, as each one is tied to a legend of Zau’s shaman ancestors, but also brings that overarching theme of grief back. For example, Bamba’s Stone is an ability that gives you an icy shot that can freeze enemies in place, or turn water into ice that you can walk on.

“We thought a lot about how these gameplay aspects can also evoke emotions in the player,” lead designer Zi Peters tells Inverse, “Now, the things that were anxiety inducing are not so much anymore. Freezing the water gives you time to breathe, take a moment, and overcome those obstacles. Freezing enemies lets you crowd-control them a lot better. It’s all about setting up these emotional themes and trying to evoke those in the player.”

It’s this singular vision for its themes and story that makes Tales of Kenzera feel so special. Even though its gameplay is rock solid, it’s not doing anything wildly new on that front, but the way the story and themes are woven into the very fabric of the entire experience is astounding.

Final thoughts... for now

Tales of Kenzera feels great to play, with platforming and combat that shine with responsive controls.

Surgent Studio

Crucially, it also feels like Tales of Kenzera isn’t overstaying its welcome. There’s a bit of ancillary exploration and collectibles to find, but the game makes sure you’re staying committed to its story, and it at least holds up after six hours.

On the most basic level, I’d say Tales of Kenzera is a great-feeling Metroidvania that any fan of the genre would enjoy. But on a deeper level, there’s something inherently compelling about a game that wears its themes and messages so openly on its sleeve, that so earnestly wants its players to consider the message it’s trying to impart. At the same time, the colorful art style and inspirations from Bantu mythology make the game feel remarkably refreshing and different from anything else out there.

Tales of Kenzera is one of those riveting yarns that feels like it could only be told through a video game, and I can’t wait to see how the whole thing wraps up.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau launches on April 23 for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

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