tales of kenzera

Tales Of Kenzera: ZAU Preview – Battling Grief

A look into this exciting debut project.

Video game storytellers have long sought and reaped benefits exclusive to the medium that allow them to express ideas and values in ways that can’t easily be achieved in other art. At the heart of it is interactivity, but also expression through design. Games like Celeste, Undertale or Eastshade are easy examples that prove the heights that can be achieved when game design and storytelling are intrinsically linked.

It’s fun to explore and debate these things in hindsight, but it’s not every day you get to see these efforts take shape ahead of time, or learn of the process and the journey directly from the creators themselves, but that’s been the case with Tales of Kenzera: ZAU. I was recently lucky enough to be a part of a cohort of media given an early deep dive into how the game came together, with key members of developer Surgent Studios on hand to talk us through it.

tales of kenzera

In case introductions are needed, Tales of Kenzera: ZAU is an upcoming metroidvania-style action adventure that takes inspiration from Bantu tales and mythology to tell a very human story of grief and courage. Set across two timeliness with an afrofuturism-tinged cityscape circa 2089 and a more fabled and spiritual world steeped in myths and legends, it’s a story that takes direct inspiration from actor and founder/creative director Abubakar Salim’s own experiences with the loss of his father. Much has been made of the game’s connection to the phenomenon of grief in the past, but this preview session really shone a light on how deep it goes.

It starts from the most broad detail – the decision to tell this story in the form of a video game, and particularly as a metroidvania, with parallels drawn between what we take from the genre and what we take from grief. It’s about becoming comfortable in a space that starts out unfamiliar and daunting, and about the work we do to move forward and build strength that gives us the tools to face adversity and new challenges that cross our paths.

tales of kenzera

The game’s lead designer, Zi Peters, explains how the the moment-to-moment gameplay, which sees protagonist Zau make use of two distinctly different movesets via The Mask of the Sun and the Mask of the Moon, also contributes to these themes as an analogy to the constantly-shifting emotional states associated with grief. ZAU’s level design works to encourage players to switch between these two states of being as the situation calls, but doesn’t necessarily force them into one or the other.

One of the game’s earliest twists, a Mask of the Moon power that allows players to freeze both enemies and bodies of water in the environment, is a great example of this. Waterfalls and rapids are common in the game’s early areas and can prevent the player from making progress, but when frozen they can help Zau reach new places, as if to say that obstacles in our lives – given new perspective – can be the catalyst to progress.

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In combat, this power can help to freeze enemies in place, at which point the player can either wail on them with the Moon’s more long-range abilities or switch to the Mask of the Sun for a close-up pummeling. Being reactive and adaptive to unexpected challenges is as important to combat as it is to Zau’s growth, and I’m keen to see how that idea continues to play out as combat gets tougher, puzzles more complex and Zau’s own repertoire more diverse.

tales of kenzera

And even if it turns out that it’s not as deep as all that, the very idea of a world crafted within a parable, gifted from father to son as a tool to help cope with his own passing, is always going to be a compelling concept. It gives the team at Surgent a heap of creative wiggle room to build environments and mechanics that are expressive and allegorical, and imbuing it all with new takes on Bantu myths and folklore. I’m particularly fond of the interpretation of the Tokoloshe here, which display their traditionally-mischievous spirit by exploding on defeat, making them a particularly troublesome hazard in the heat of combat.

We also got a glimpse of each of the different major biomes that Zau visits, and they’ve all been intentionally designed in both image and play to drive home the different stages of his grief, along with a stirring score courtesy of the very talented Nainita Desai, who comes with an impressive resume that includes Sam Barlow’s Immortality and contributions to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II among a long list of film and TV. Desai spoke of the soundtrack’s influence by the many musical traditions of the African continent and culture, and the tapestry being weaved already sounds magical.

tales of kenzera

And props do need to be handed to the EA Originals for helping bring a product like this not only to fruition but with as much support as it seems to be rallying behind it. Salim told us early on that the studio’s pitch for ZAU was less-than-polished at the time that talks were happening, but that the Originals saw the heart in the project and jumped on it.

Salim’s hopes for the studio itself are that of a vehicle to the creation of stories that are inherently human, as well as being respectful of the time of both audiences and creators, with Tales of Kenzera: ZAU slated to be a fairly digestible experience. It’s a debut effort from a small team of 30, but Salim isn’t shy about the studio’s goals to expand the Tales of Kenzera brand with more stories across more types of media.

For now, I’m simply eager and ready to see this debut journey through.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU launches on April 23rd for PS5, Xbox Series X, Switch and PC, and will be available at launch as part of the PlayStation Plus Extra subscription.