Grief is a universal language, something that everyone experiences. That’s something that actor Abubakar Salim and Surgent Studios tackle through the lens of a Metroidvania. Salim is best known as the voice of Bayek in Assassin’s Creed Origins, but Tales of Kenzera: ZAU represents the first foray into development for both him and the studio he founded. That theme of grief is the central pillar that Tales of Kenzera is built on, and it’s clear that every facet of it is built to tie into it. After getting a brief hands-on demo wtih Tales of Kenzera, I’m hopeful that the game has the Metroidvania chops to back up its unique narrative ambitions.
Tales of Kenzera has fascinating dual stories, following two different characters. One part of the story follows Zuberi, a boy living in the African city of Kenzera in 2089. After losing his father suddenly, Zuberi receives a book that takes him on a journey with Zau, a young warrior shaman in the distant past who makes a deal with Kalunga, the god of the dying, in an effort to bring his father back. This idea was directly inspired by Salim’s own experience as a first-generation British citizen, born in the United Kingdom from parents who were from Kenya.
“I've always felt like I've been trying to find and figure out this idea of where I'm from, where my family is from,” Salim tells Inverse, “This is why I’m using Zuberi and Zau. They’re of different time-frames but still going on the same journey.”
The demo thrusts us right into the opening moment, when Zau meets Kalunga in an otherworldly plane and makes a deal to revive his lost loved one.
Then you’re thrust into a luscious jungle setting, and tasked with finding your way out in proper Metroidvania style, with plenty of platforming and puzzle-solving. It immediately became clear that Tales of Kenzera has nailed one of the most vital points for a Metroidvania — tight controls that feel intuitive.
Zau can clamber up cliffs, slide under narrow areas, and wall jump with ease, making platforming a snap. Combat is where things really get interesting, as Zau swaps between two systems of powers, the Mask of the Sun and one of the Moon. The Moon mask grants you ranged abilities, sort of like Samus’ arm cannon, while the Sun mask is focused on close-up melee attacks. Both combat encounters and puzzles requires you to switch between these on the fly. Once I picked up these controls, combat encounters felt exciting and different.
Partway through the demo I unlocked a new ability that let me fire off a freezing projectile with the Moon mask. This allowed me to stun enemies in place for a follow-up attack, but could also be used to stop rivers and waterfalls, opening up new ways to platform and reach other areas. It was a surprisingly smart way of incorporating the environment into gameplay, forcing me to try and remember all the areas I might have passed where I could use the ability.
That brings up another unique aspect of Tales of Kenzera: the biomes aren’t inspired by particular environments or settings, but rather emotions and feelings.
“One of the things that I wanted to try and avoid was trying to feel it make the game feel as gamey as possible. Avoiding the idea of creating a fire biome or a water biome, led into the idea of what feelings each biome would be inspired by,” Salim says, “For example, the Highlands, which is the first big section you’ll explore, comes from a place of anxiety, a sense of holding on. You’ve got these floating platforms held because there’s a storm brewing. That tension is what causes this area to have a lot of jumping, a lot of leaps of faith, in way.”
The idea of creating Metroidvania areas based on emotions is so inherently compelling, I’m amazed it’s not something we’ve seen before now. It’s abundantly clear that Salim and the team at Surgent are overflowing with passion for this game.
While it all sounds great on paper, the small snippet of gameplay I experience genuinely gives me hope that they might be able to pull the whole thing off. Tales of Kenzera gets what makes a Metroidvania tick, between tight controls and intriguing abilities, but the ambition of its story is what could prime it to be something truly special.
Tales of Kenzera: ZAU launches on April 23 for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, Nintendo Switch, and PC. A demo will be available during Steam Next Fest on February 5.
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