We're just one month into the new year, but mark my words: 2024 will be the year of the Metroidvania. This beloved 2D action-adventure genre, inspired by the Metroid and Castlevania formula, is already off to a fantastic start with Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown leading the charge. But that's just the beginning. With games like Ultros, Animal Well, and hopefully Hollow Knight: Silksong on the horizon, it's highly likely that this year's "game of the year" will emerge from this popular genre. Yet, creating a fun and rewarding Metroidvania is one thing; understanding how this formula can reinforce a bigger picture idea is another.

Enter Tales of Kenzera: Zau. Surgent Studios' new title doesn't simply adopt the genre because it's trendy. Instead, it carefully selects it to enhance the story of grief it aims to tell. I had the chance to experience an early demo of the game, and it struck a remarkable balance between slick action, platforming, and creative decisions that could set a new gold standard for the genre.

As the demo drops me near the beginning of the adventure, I am introduced to Zau, the young shaman on a quest to bring his father back from the land of the dead. Armed with two weapons representing the power of the sun and moon, Zau embarks on a picaresque 2D journey. It becomes apparent that this will be a tale of self-discovery as our hero grapples with grief, immerses himself in Bantu culture, and sheds his brash tendencies.

From a pure gameplay standpoint, Tales of Kenzera already excels in the basics. With my moon weapon, I can unleash long-range arrow shots upon enemies, much like in Metroid Dread. And with a quick tap of a bumper, I can switch to my sun powers, delivering powerful close-range slashes that send enemies soaring into the air. If you've played Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown, you'll find this quick and versatile combat system familiar.

But there's more to these weapon choices than meets the eye. As Surgent Studios founder Abubakar Salim explains, each weapon represents the "balletic" dance of grief, while incorporating symbols important to Bantu culture. The moon power symbolizes the act of taking in and examining one's surroundings, while the sun embodies a furious chaos.

However, the game's thematic depth isn't limited to combat alone. During a roundtable discussion, Salim reveals how Tales of Kenzera subverts typical video game conventions to reinforce its narrative points. No design element feels arbitrary or present just for the sake of expectation.

One example is the use of reflections to increase the player's health. Instead of the usual collectibles found in Metroidvanias, Tales of Kenzera encourages players to sit beneath a Baobab tree and explore their emotional state as the means to enhance survivability. It's a clever way to incorporate emotional introspection into the gameplay.

As I progress through the demo, I encounter the familiar Metroidvania loop. A pivotal moment occurs when our impulsive protagonist, Zau, attempts to chase a child across a rope bridge, resulting in a calamitous collapse and a thrilling descent down flowing rivers. The objective? Make it back to the other side of the bridge. This seemingly simple task leads me through a labyrinthine network of 2D caverns, adorned with optional collectibles, trinkets, and fragments of lore. Following the tradition of Metroid games, the demo concludes with obtaining a special power-up: an arrow capable of freezing water, enabling me to scale waterfalls and return to the surface.

While the gameplay loop may appear straightforward, Salim emphasizes that there's an emotional undercurrent guiding it. He explains how the Metroidvania format perfectly aligns with the story's exploration of grief. The feeling of losing oneself and being thrust into an unfamiliar world, slowly growing comfortable despite the inherent danger, resonates strongly with the journey of grief. It's a journey that catches you by surprise, just like grief does, and while everyone's experience is unique, ultimately, we have some control over it.

The beauty of Tales of Kenzera lies in the attention to detail. Nothing feels arbitrary or "gamey" here. The level design itself reflects the game's emotional intentions. For instance, the Highlands, the first major area in the game, exudes anxiety and tension. Floating platforms create a sense of unease, mirroring the storm brewing within the narrative. Jumping and taking leaps of faith become essential to progress.

It's these meticulous details that convince me Surgent Studios has something truly remarkable in their hands. Tales of Kenzera: Zau goes beyond being an indie genre game with a weighty theme slapped on top. It thoughtfully integrates its mechanics, art, and level design to create an immersive experience that resonates with players on an emotional level.

As my time with the demo comes to an end, I'm left eagerly anticipating the full release of Tales of Kenzera: Zau. This game has the potential to be a shining example of how the Metroidvania genre can be used as a storytelling tool, weaving together gameplay and narrative in a way that enhances both aspects. With its unique combat system, thematic depth, and attention to emotional detail, Tales of Kenzera has the potential to be a standout title in the crowded Metroidvania landscape.

So keep an eye out for Tales of Kenzera: Zau in the coming months. It's shaping up to be a game that not only entertains but also invites players to reflect on the complexities of grief and the power of self-discovery. Surgent Studios' dedication to integrating gameplay and storytelling sets a new standard for the genre, and I can't wait to dive deeper into the world of Kenzera and uncover the secrets it holds.

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