Review: Tales of Kenzera: Zau (Switch)

A game that is competently made but not especially innovative, bolstered by a solid story and beautiful setting.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 05/20/2024 15:14 1 Comment     ShareThis
The Final Grade
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Competently made with precise controls and solid platforming challenges; Zau's fire and ice abilities offer decent combat variety; Afircan setting is gorgeous; great storytelling with a personal touch from one of the game's creators
Poison Mushroom for...
Outside of the setting and storyline, the game feels rather generic; not enough innovation to stand out from a stuffed crowd of other, better Metroidvanias on Switch; small glitches here and there

Metroidvanias have exploded in popularity in recent times, so much so that they’re now practically a dime a dozen, especially on the indie scene. Despite their relative ubiquity, metroidvanias continue to offer developers a chance to really stretch their creative muscles. Tales of Kenzera: Zau is the latest such game to try and do something new with this subgenre. Developed by Abubakar Salim and Surgent Studios, Zau is a metroidvania set in Africa following the exploits of a budding shaman who is trying to win back the soul of his departed father and bring him back to life. Although Zau’s setting and storytelling stand out from the crowd, the gameplay is fairly derivative, ultimately preventing the experience from reaching its full potential.

Players are cast as the nominal Zau, whose adventure is heavily inspired by Salim’s own experiences losing a parent. Salim, who is a voice actor some might recognize from his work as Bayek in Assassin’s Creed Origins, even goes so far as to play the role of Zau himself. With such a personal touch, Zau can’t help but impress from a storytelling perspective. The character interactions are very well done, especially the relationship between Zau and Kalunga, the God of Death. Kalunga acts as council to Zau on his journey, offering wisdom that Zau has yet to learn. As a foil, Kalunga offers the player great insight into Zau and where he’s at during this trying period of his life.

It’s when players begin focusing on the gameplay that things start to unravel for Zau. The game is competently made, to be clear, with precise controls and solid platforming challenges throughout. However, at the end of the day, there isn’t much to point at in Zau that stands out compared to others games in the genre. Enemies, while inspired by African folklore, feel rather generic and also lack variety. This sensation extends to most of the roughly six to seven hour long campaign—from a pure gameplay perspective, Zau comes across as a tad paint-by-numbers.

Still, for all its rote elements, Zau does them right. Outside of a couple of glitches (for instance, I was phased outside of a battle arena and couldn’t reenter to finish the fight, causing me to have to reload the game), Zau is presented well. The African setting, in particular, is very beautiful, and the hand drawn images of Zau, Kalunga, and other characters during dialogue scenes are gorgeously rendered. A lot of thought has gone into immersing the player in this world, it’s just a shame that this originality couldn’t extend itself into the gameplay.

That all said, anyone who wants to bite into a well-crafted, if not wholly innovative Metroidvania can certainly do a lot worse than Zau. Along with the gorgeous setting and interesting story, the game will keep players entertained well enough for the duration. While I can see concessions were made visually to get Zau running on Switch, overall it’s a solid conversion that runs soundly. The world isn’t huge, but there remain a lot of nooks and crannies to explore, with secrets and upgrades to uncover within.

If I have any other gripe beyond the generic platforming and exploration, it would be the combat. Besides enemy variety being less than I would like, I also felt like battles took longer than they needed to. Small skirmishes regularly felt like they overstayed their welcome. Zau has what are essentially fire and ice attacks that he can switch freely from, and although they are satisfying to use, I would have toggled enemy health down a wee bit to balance things out. It’s not really an issue of challenge—I thought the enemies were satisfying to engage with—just that it takes too many hits to get through small fry baddies.

By the time the credits roll on Zau, players will have fought through swaths of foes and explored many interesting locales. As much as Zau manages to get right, it’s ultimately failed by a lack of innovation that results in an experience that feels like something is missing that would have pushed the game to the next level. Whether it might have been more creative uses of Zau’s powers, or more inventive world exploration, it’s hard to say exactly. I would nonetheless still love to see Salim and Surgent Studios team on another project and take what they learned with Zau and expand upon it. I give Zau a light recommendation for those who have been wanting a new Metroidvania to play, but anyone looking for something truly new is likely to be disappointed.

Nintendojo was provided a copy of this game for review by a third party, though that does not affect our recommendation. For every review, Nintendojo uses a standard criteria.

One Response to “Review: Tales of Kenzera: Zau (Switch)”

  • 106 points
    Myles Jones says...

    I played this game probably twice and haven’t played since. This game does, like you said, lack variety and I feel as if they could’ve taken more time developing the game.

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