Tales of Kenzera: ZAU Review - Screenshot 1 of 5

There's something about playing Tales of Kenzera: ZAU that never feels quite right. Whether it's the slow, sluggish controls or frustratingly frequent one-hit kills, reaching any sort of flow state where you're vibing and jiving with the latest EA Originals title is nigh-on impossible. It's a very stop-start experience at odds with the usual hallmarks of the Metroidvania genre, instead spotlighting a touching, personal tale of parental loss. Such a heavy narrative focus is no bad thing, but with little gameplay satisfaction to count on between plot points, it feels so lopsided that anything else comes across as an afterthought.

By definition, the debut title from Surgent Studios is a Metroidvania game, but only in the loosest terms. You'll explore a reasonably sized map encompassing different areas and regions while unlocking a handful of new abilities, secrets, and shortcuts. Two skill trees enhance your combat techniques, then persistent platforming sections navigate you to objectives and optional challenges. That description could be applied to many Metroidvania greats like Hollow Knight and Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown, but the issue with Tales of Kenzera is it doesn't lean into these features anywhere near enough.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU Review - Screenshot 2 of 5

It's a very basic take on the genre, to the point where it might have been better off as a more straightforward action platformer so such comparisons would be moot. Rarely are new skills teased through inaccessible passages, never will its platforming really challenge you. The game's not completely devoid of such elements, though what is there won't prove particularly satisfying — it works a lot better as an introduction to Metroidvanias than anything else.

Instead, the title is made up of numerous singular paths that occasionally break off into optional impasses with a secret at the end, and combat encounters. Main character Zau utilises them on a quest to claim his father's spirit back from the dead; a story personal to Surgent Studios founder Abubakar Salim, who previously voiced Bayek in Assassin's Creed Origins.

Told through lengthy and frequent dialogue interactions, it's a change of pace from narratives typical of the genre. However, taken as a standalone plot, it works well from both an emotional and suspenseful standpoint. Zau is accompanied on his journey by the God of Death, creating an interesting dynamic as the two characters don't always get along. Stripped of everything else, Tales of Kenzera has a touching story to tell.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU Review - Screenshot 3 of 5

Its next best thing would be the combat, which employs magical abilities alongside standard melee and projectile-based attacks. Zau comes equipped with a sun mask and a moon mask, which can be swapped between on the fly to access different types of moves. The sun mask is for getting up close and personal with enemies while the moon mask puts down ranged foes through small crystalised missiles. New and existing abilities can be upgraded through each mask's skill tree to make for what eventually becomes a well-rounded combat system. It feels a bit too basic at first, but start earning upgrade points and it quickly begins to flourish.

The same cannot be said of the repetitive arenas that host those bouts, however. While the background might change between each region, the game subscribes to essentially a single layout when it blocks off the exit and forces you to fight enemies. The platforms will always be in the same place and so too will your opponents. Despite the evolving combat system, this means every engagement plays out almost exactly the same way every time. Except for a handful of boss encounters, combat gradually feels repetitive since you already know what’s worked 10 times beforehand.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU Review - Screenshot 4 of 5

By far the biggest flaw, though, is the controls — or rather, their inability to reliably register your inputs. Very frequently, protagonist Zau will simply stop moving while you're pushing the left thumbstick to either side. In our experience pre-release, we had to recenter the thumbstick multiple times to start moving again, and this happened every few minutes. You interact with characters and collectibles by pressing the R2 button, and it too sometimes demands you push the button multiple times before the on-screen action occurs. We tested the game using three different DualSense controllers to see if we had a faulty pad, but the problem was easily replicated across all of them.

Even when they do work properly, there's a weight and clunkiness to the controls that makes Tales of Kenzera feel a lot less responsive than other Metroidvanias. When you need to quickly react to your surroundings, there's no guarantee the game will even register your button press in the first place. It's an issue that'll need to be sorted out through post-launch updates.

The environments could be a tad more forgiving too, because never have we experienced so many one-hit kills that feel frankly unnecessary. Whereas other games would simply deal standard chip damage if you collide with something — such as spikes — Tales of Kenzera kills you straight away. Worse still are situations where puzzles require you to push boulders off ledges, and Zau somehow gets caught underneath it and kills himself. Through no fault of your own, you've lost progress. It's never more than a few seconds due to frequent checkpointing, but it happens so often that the experience deteriorates into constant exasperation.

Tales of Kenzera: ZAU Review - Screenshot 5 of 5

At least those deaths look and sound nice. With a colourful visual palette that shifts and changes as you move between regions, Tales of Kenzera is a pretty impressive graphical showcase that goes above and beyond the standards of what is still a PS5 indie game. It's then complemented by a wonderful soundtrack from Nainita Desai, which goes such a long way to heightening the senses and emotions of the title's more impactful sequences.


Tales of Kenzera: ZAU tells a touching, personal story of family, grief, and loss, but it's wrapped up in a game that makes appreciating that narrative a lot harder than it should be. A Metroidvania in only the most basic of ways, its combat and platforming are spoilt by basic design and structure, as well as controller issues and frustrating one-hit kills. At its best when left to simply tell its story, Tales of Kenzera: ZAU falters once you have to start playing.