ZAU review: Good Grief: NPR

Main character Zau, flanked by the Masks of the Moon and the Sun, will use it to make his way through the enchanting world of Kenzera.

Surgent Studios


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Surgent Studios

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Main character Zau, flanked by the Masks of the Moon and the Sun, will use it to make his way through the enchanting world of Kenzera.

Surgent Studios

The new video game Tales of Kenzera: ZAU begins with two grieving sons and a cleverly framed story.

You start with Zuberi, a young man in an afro-futuristic city, reading Zau's story in a book left to him by his father before his death.

Moments later, the story transports you to the mythical past, watching Zau as he cries out and demands that Kalunga, God of Death, bring his own fallen father back to life. Kalunga appears to him, but not in the way the Grim Reaper might. Rather, he is a no-nonsense older man who orders Zau to lay three Great Spirits to rest in exchange for his father's life.

Zau then travels through fantastical biomes that range from deserts to jungles to volcanoes, as he and Kalunga debate the meaning of the pain and death they encounter along the way. It is an odyssey through grief and a lesson in the power we wield in the face of indescribable loss.

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Kalunga blames Zau for his rash behavior.

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Kalunga blames Zau for his rash behavior.

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British actor Abubakar Salim, who portrays Zau and Zuberi, provides a moving performance that carries the story. Known for playing the main character of Assassin's Creed Origins, Salim founded developer Surgent Studios and based Tales of Kenzera: ZAU on the experience of losing his father. The game captures Salim's Kenyan roots and sheds light on the He cherishes the Bantu culture.

Learn from the best

Salim has cited modern classics such as Hollow Knight and Ori and the Will of the Wisps as inspiration for the game's action gameplay. It's a streamlined and smaller-scale “Metroidvania,” so named because Nintendo's Metroid and Konami's Castlevania set the early template for the genre.

ZAU has all the basic necessities. It has characteristically expansive levels that require you to go back and discover secrets made possible by new power-ups. But it also has frictionless movement, frenetic combat, and a lush soundtrack that reigns supreme in the game's dramatic boss battles.

Nainita Desai's soundtrack features the choir that performed in the Black Panther films Voquality.


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From enemies like the Tokoloshe and Kongamato, who represent chaos and brutality, to the Kivulian Woodlands, home to one of the three Great Spirits that Zau must subdue, the game presents a fierce and enchanting ecosystem. Fortunately, Zau's Masks of the Sun and Moon give him the firepower and speed he needs to overcome any challenge. You can switch between them at the touch of a button: the moon offers quick ranged attacks, while the sun allows for heavier melee attacks. Brutal enemies with spiritual overshields require you to match the sun or moon to take them out.

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Zau, overwhelmed by one of the game's awesome, quirky Great Spirits.

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Zau, overwhelmed by one of the game's awesome, quirky Great Spirits.

Surgent Studios

There's a skill tree, but it's quite sparse: both the Sun and Moon paths have seven skills to choose from, which require Shaman points gained from clubbing the life out of bad guys. Doing this will also fill up to two energy meters. You can spend one to heal or two to unleash ultimate attacks: the Sun Mask's Supernova summons a flaming tornado, while the Moon Mask's Lunar Blast takes a page out of Iron Man's book with a laser that cuts across the screen. Although the game suffers from a poor variety of enemies, this combat system is simple and almost perfect. I wish it gave you a slightly larger window to cancel attacks with a dash.

Navigating through the game is almost as smooth as the visuals. Early on, Zau races forward with a double jump and an air burst. Later, he'll find a hookshot and powers like Tshukudu's Might, a special ability that allows him to charge forward to destroy barriers between levels. While the game could have benefited from better navigation features to aid in going back, like the snapshot system in this year's Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown, it's a joy to explore.

Lay to rest

Through the game's four acts, Zau helps the characters he encounters, each embodying a response to grief. It could be a young girl hoping to reunite with a lost Spirit, an exhausted warrior trying to find his missing son, or a weary fellow shaman searching in vain for the ingredients for a restorative tonic. Throughout it all, Zau struggles with Kalunga, the God of Death, and resists the wisdom offered to him as he tries to do things his way. Each time, Zau finds healing, but rarely in the way he expects.

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Zau, as you explore one of Kenzera's many hauntingly beautiful locations.

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Zau, as you explore one of Kenzera's many hauntingly beautiful locations.

Surgent Studios

Stories from Kenzera: ZAU is not the first game to explore grief, but it is a standout among stories of Afro-futurism. It is tender with the protagonist and the restless spirits who battle him until they all come to terms with the weight of life, death and loss. The symbolism incorporated into the masks, weapons and architecture reflects the care Surgent Studios took in translating Bantu culture into a fantasy video game.

This journey transforms Zau and, through him, Zuberi. That metastructure invites players to think about how they would deal with loss. Luckily I still have my father, but the game reminded me that our time is short. The brilliance of Tales of Kenzera: ZAU comes from combining this memento mori with a satisfying, familiar game genre. While it may not be as innovative as other Metroidvanias, the heartbreaking acting and peerless presentation combine to create a game that I will remember for years to come.

James Perkins Mastromarino contributed to this review.

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