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May 2024

Tales Of Kenzera: ZAU

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Surgent Studios
Release Date: April 23, 2024


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PS5 Review - 'Tales of Kenzera: Zau'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on April 22, 2024 @ 7:00 a.m. PDT

Tales Of Kenzera: ZAU is a heartfelt single-player action/adventure platformer that brings a new take on the experience of finding hope and courage after loss.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau follows the titular Zau, an ancient shaman. His father recently passed away, and the loss of his father has devastated Zau. He's so distraught that he goes to the God of Death, Kalunga, and makes a deal: Zau will recover three powerful spirits who have escaped Kalunga, and in exchange, Zau's dead father will be revived. The grieving shaman and God of Death set out to bring peace to the wandering spirits and discover the true cost and meaning of passing on.

Zau's story is occasionally funny and amusing, but it's largely about dealing with grief, and it does the story justice. The subject matter means you can largely expect the direction of the plot, but it's well-executed nonetheless. Zau is a likable character who is largely sympathetic, even when he occasionally seems hotheaded or abrasive. There's a sense of reality to his desperation to bring back his father, and the genuine pain of his loss elevates the game.

Zau is a standard Metroidvania in terms of basic design. You're placed on a large map and need to find the three spirits. It's one of the more linear Metroidvanias, with the game divided into acts, and it somewhat limits players from breaking the sequence. You have access to a lot of abilities that are normally upgrades from the very outset. Beginning with a double-jump and wall climb makes the gameplay feel smoother, considering both of those abilities are usually a standard unlockable. Beyond that, it's fairly familiar, with hidden lore and health upgrades located throughout the game if you look carefully.

Combat in Zau focuses on two masks that you can swap between freely: Sun and Moon. The Sun mask is built around close-range melee combos. The basic attack deals a ton of damage, and you can even juggle enemies in the air or send them flying into danger. The Moon mask is a long-distance mask built around shooting smaller and weaker blasts from a distance. You have limited ammo, but it replenishes while you're not attacking, even if you're in Sun mode, so the game rewards you for constantly swapping back and forth between the two modes.

Zau gets more complex as you go on. In true Metroidvania fashion, you'll unlock new abilities and gimmicks that tie into the main combat system. For example, the Moon form gets a Freeze ability that works on water and on enemies, allowing you to temporarily remove a dangerous enemy from a fight. The Sun mask gets a throwing spear that pierces enemies and allows you to follow up a melee Sun combo without needing to swap forms. You'll eventually unlock neat moves, like the ability to freeze enemies in time or set them on fire.

Probably the biggest moves are the super moves for each mask. The Sun mask can shoot a massive AoE fire storm around Zau, while the Moon mask can fire a giant laser that would put Samus Aran to shame. Both of these use Spirit, which is the game's shared resource for healing and special moves. You gain Spirit for attacking enemies and can find trinkets that modify how you get it, such as giving it for combos or if you take damage. If you play well then, you're rewarded with a giant laser, but if not, you can constantly use Spirit to heal.

When Zau is at its best, it genuinely feels amazing. The standout is some of the boss fights, which tend to be epic affairs. The first boss alone could easily have felt like the final boss of another game, a dramatic battle against a lightning-spewing flying bird monster during a pitched rainstorm. When the title is firing on all cylinders, it feels great to play and is a fantastic experience; it's clear the developers had a lot of strong ideas on how to make the game shine.

Unfortunately, the thing that's holding back Zau is its downtime. Its highs are very high, but they're bookended by some poor pacing that drags down the entire experience. There's a lot of dead space in the game, or areas where you're moving forward with no real enemies and limited platforming challenges, and there are no chances to branch off and explore other routes. This particularly stands out early in the game, when it drags. One early segment has you going into a mine to find some lost keys, only to have a long string of nothing blocking you until you reach the end, find a key, and then have to retrace your steps with one or two more enemies, and then you have to do the exact same thing for the other key. The game feels a tad too empty for its own good. This leads to a weird flow where a good chunk of the game doesn't live up to its potential. When it does live up to its potential, Zau is darn enjoyable. I'd prefer a more even experience.

As for the visuals, the vivid and colorful environments are an absolute delight to explore, with a lot of detail and effort put into the backgrounds so each area feels distinctive. The character models are all crisp and clear, and the various mask forms look incredibly cool in action. The soundtrack and voice acting are both excellent. Zau's voice acting is tremendously good at conveying the tone and mood of the game, and it keeps players invested in the plot.

Tales of Kenzera: Zau is an overall solid entry into the Metroidvania genre. The core mechanics are strong, and the story is surprisingly engaging. Only some lackluster level design holds it back from true greatness, and there are enough moments of excellent gameplay that it isn't a huge negative, either. If you're looking for something to scratch that Metroidvania itch, Zau is more than up to the challenge.

Score: 8.0/10

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