Tales Of Kenzera: Zau review: a beautifully designed yet imprecise platforming adventure

1 month ago 67

It's not time to make a change

 Zau, receiving the power of the Sun and Moon masks Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/EA

Until I played Tales Of Kenzera: Zau I figured people had run out of ways to make original platformers, but an Afrofuturist story-in-a-story framing for a mythological platformer about healthy ways to deal with grief sure did teach me to not underestimate human creativity. I really liked a lot about Tales Of Kenzera, and got annoyed by a bunch of stuff too - and the division seems to be that a lot of the former falls on the story and design side, and the latter on the mechanical side, which I guess isn't ideal for a platformer. But still, I think it's worth persevering.

You play as the titular Zau, a young shaman struggling with the recent death of his father, so his solution is to help death, personified as an older man called Kalunga, with defeating three powerful spirits who refuse to move on. If he can do this, Kalunga will owe him a boon, which he intends to use to resurrect his father. Here we have a very comprehensible video game story, where the three spirits in question function as landmark boss battles against, e.g., a big lightning eagle or a wood owl made of fear. They're striking designs.

But Zau's story was written for - and is being read by - Zuberi, by his father, who has also just died. As you play through the game Zau learns about the natural rhythms of life and death, as he sees the ways the land suffers when the spirits refuse to move on, and meets other characters like a father missing his son, and a young girl whose mother is evading death. Thus Zau, and Zuberi, also gradually learn to accept their grief. It's like Gris, but less annoying to me, specifically. In fact, the framing of the story as the telling of a mythological fable really enhances the story, because it's exactly the sort of practical moral that you'd encounter in a tale handed down by your ancestors.

Zau was taught his shamanic skills by his dad, and chief among these are the Sun and Moon masks that you can switch between at the tap of a button (controller is recommended, here), and which give you separate animations - a detail I loved - as well as separate skills. Moon powers are more ranged and crowd controll-y in combat, while the Sun gives you dual spears and melee combos, and they both have huge special attacks that deal big damage in a pinch. As you continue, you get more abilities layered on top to help with traversal. You get jumps and double jumps and a dash, of course, but later on your Moon form allows you to freeze water so you can jump up waterfalls or run along ramps, and your Sun gets a long-range lance that activates switches. Add to the list a more powerful dash, a kind of lasso jump, the ability to glide, and to reform or destroy certain structures.

 Zau Extra curricular
You can level up Zau to have extra abilities (like Sun combo attacks setting enemies on fire, which is a good one), but you can also complete shaman trials - extra hard bits of platforming - for tokens that give you passive buffs, or shrines or other sources of extra power to level up quicker. Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/EA

It's a lot, and if you put this game down for more than, being generous, 72 hours, you will probably forget all the controls (and the game doesn't have a diagram of them in the menu, so good luck figuring them out again). But there are times when, during traversal, you get into a beautiful flow pattern, where you leap and glide over hot air, avoid some crystal spikes by a mosquito's pube, jump over a load of collapsing platforms, and dash to safety, without breaking a sweat. At the same time there are sections that rely on timing your jump to a lava explosion you can't quite see, or where inputting a jump at a slightly wrong angle will send you hurtling into an environmental hazard. Respawns are pretty instant, but an unskippable chase sequence that you complete by memorising it over repeated fails isn't so fun when your next failure swings round just as quickly.

The world you explore is more of an unalloyed delight. The world map is deceptively large, with a few fast travel points - although I found these to be too rare to be useful, and despite hidden collectibles and challenges, Tales Of Kenzera doesn't really function as a Metroidvania anyway - and has strikingly different areas. You travel through deep mines, arid plains, and lush jungles, each housing the remains of a village. They're all beautiful, with tons of detail and depth even though Tales Of Kenzera is a side-scrolling game, and it feels lived in as well as slightly magical, though you end up tracking back and forth a bit on the journey to and from your quest markers.

But while the world is full of beauty, it's also full of monsters. Your main enemies are the lingering spirits of former warriors, who aren't fans of Zau wandering around bringing death to their front door. There are ranged attack spirits, melee, mini-boss tanks, mischievous little tricksters who explode on defeat, and others who look like insects and syphon your health. Backing them up are floating snakes that spit acid and tiny flying lizards that divebomb you. Sometimes the bastards will show up shielded to Moon or Sun damage, the better to encourage you to switch up your attack style. It's an impressive amount of variety.

 Zau Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/EA
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/EA

But it is, I think, a bit too much variety in practise to be entirely fun. The rhythm becomes apparent: you'll have a tough plaforming section, then a bit of a run, and then you'll enter an area with a conspicuous amount of platforms for no apparent reason - at which point walls covering the entrance and exit slam into place. You then have to fight several increasingly difficult waves of enemies in an enclosed space, like opening a tin of sardines and finding out all the fishy bastards want to kneecap you. Rather than becoming a fun, frantic exercise in using all the skills you've learned, it becomes a chore where you end up doing the same rote things no matter which enemy you're facing anyway.

This isn't helped by the fact that there are some small, but annoying, bugs to contend with as well. While I was playing sometimes Zau got stuck in crouch, and at others he continuously jumped, which is no good to anyone. Neither was his ranged Moon attack automatically firing straight up instead of at the enemy. They're not game breaking, but they're frustrating to contend with - especially in the middle of a fight, and most especially in a boss fight against the three big spirits - one of which is just a giant platforming level.

Tales Of Kenzera shows great precision in its character and world design, in the writing, in the voice acting, even down to individual animations. But it lacks precision in some areas of the combat, in particular the platforming, which arguably is the bit that matters more in a platformer. For me, I'm not sure it does! Despite my frustrations - I have evidence in the form of furious texts to a friend about how many times I attempted one sequence where you have to sprint up waterfalls to a timed gate, and another that features a jump-dash in time to land on a platform floating on a lava fountain - I'd like to see what other tales can be told in Kenzera.

This review was based on a review build of the game provided by the developers.

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