Kinzira Tales: Zao Review: A Beautiful Meditation on Loss

Losing is inevitable, yet knowing that doesn't make it any less difficult. Grief is absolutely guaranteed to touch your life – to touch mine. Certainly this has already happened. This certainty—that death will affect us all—is part of the reason why so much art is devoted to interrogating those feelings. For a long time, video games have been a medium that, despite its death, dying, and multiple lives, has never quite been able to unpack feelings of grief. There was no good reason for this: when you die in a video game, you always respawn. The risk of death is nothing more than a few hearts on a screen, a number. Often, it is encouraged. The more kills you get, the better. Death is not something to mourn there, but to celebrate. But this is not a universal truth in all games. More and more video games are exploring what it means to lose – no longer just a level, but a tangible, life-changing loss. It's games like Soul travelera “relaxing management game about death”, which revolves around life after death; What remains of Edith Finch, about the stories left behind; or The Undertaker's TaleWhich made you deal with death. You'll find sadness in games too, which aren't explicitly about losing; Like I said, it's inevitable.

Surgent Studios Tales of Kenzira: Zao is the latest game about processing grief; In fact, this is the essence of the game. led by Dragon House Actor Abubakar Salim, the development team at Surgent Studios did not shy away from the topic. When is The game was announced at The Game Awards Salem said in 2023 Tales of Kenzira: Zao It was a way for him to process his grief in a way that was familiar to him, as someone who grew up playing and loving video games. The game is a tribute to his father, who died of cancer in 2013.

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Its events take place in a colorful, African-futuristic world. Tales of Kenzira: Zao It begins with a boy grieving the recent death of his father. His father had been ill for a long time, and his death was expected but no less devastating. The boy isn't ready to say goodbye, so instead he picks up a book his father was writing. Within this book where the majority Tales of Kenzira: Zao The film's events take place in a world that mirrors the boy's world. Grieving the death of his father, a young shaman named Zao makes a deal with Kalunga, the god of death, to bring back his father. In order to fulfill Kalunga's request, Zao must head deep into Kinzera, where lost souls abound, to confront three powerful spirits.

Image: Surgent Studios/Electronic Arts

Tales of Kenzira: Zao It is a Metroidvania style game that uses its gameplay to reflect Zau's story and grief. Zau enters Kenzera overcome with grief, and is singularly focused on bringing back Baba – he is resistant to helping Kalunga, even if he struggles without it. His grief is overwhelming and complex. He processes his feelings, sometimes out loud, as he travels across several different—but interconnected—lands in search of spirits.

To confront the troubled spirits, Zau uses the powers of two of his father's masks: one representing the sun and the other the moon. Initially, the Blue Moon Mask grants Zau a ranged attack, while the Yellow Sun Mask is a melee attack for fighting enemies up close. Like any metroidvania, Tales of Kenzira: Zao You upgrade these abilities as you progress through its platform. Eventually, Zau will gain the ability to freeze water or enemies, fire electric spears, swing from hook flowers, and smash through reinforced portals. Beyond platforms, Tales of Kenzira: Zao It offers plenty of environmental puzzles – meditations on timing, movement and placement.

The game's main path is a linear one that follows its story, but there's always room for further exploration, as is usual in a Metroidvania style game. This is where the genre seems particularly well-suited to a game about grief; It's not linear, as you'll often find yourself on what feels like the wrong path, or lost in cycles and loops. But walking these winding paths is often important in processing grief, even for Zau: the dead-ends are often spaces of contemplation or rest, giving him greater health or revealing bits of the story. Not to mention a scientist Tales of Kenzira: Zao Absolutely wonderful, despite the abundance of destruction and treachery. Each area is distinct from the other: lush greenery in treetop forests; The brown and yellow of bone-crushing deserts. The blue and violet of the depths underground. There's emotion and life teeming in every environment, with music that matches its spirit – and heightens its gravity. It is a beautiful visual re-creation of the Bantu myths and legends that are central to the game's story telling.

With each new ability, Tales of Kenzira: Zao It becomes increasingly difficult. The platforming puzzles build on themselves throughout each of the game's four chapters, and the enemies get stronger as well. There's also an upgrade tree to make Zau's skills even more powerful, as well as unlockable challenge tokens that go even further. (Runes are nice to have, but not essential; for example, one will recharge your abilities the more enemies you have.) It all gets a little messy, but in the best way. Tales of Kenzira: ZaoThe game's platforming and enemy combat are challenging in ways that feel rewarding and never punishing. The game's story makes everything difficult for a reason, and each win comes with some sort of new realization for Zau or the people he meets along his way. These realizations do not always stick to Zao; He may have a revelation of someone else's grief, only to poke his head into his own. Grief is messy, and Tales of Kenzira: Zao Not ashamed of it.

Zao, in Tales of Kinzera: Zao, dodges a blue blast of light from a massive bird-like spirit

Image: Surgent Studios/Electronic Arts

towards the end Tales of Kenzira: Zao,There is a platform section that depends on accuracy and time which is very difficult. It takes almost all of Zau's upgrades and abilities to use, which means there's a lot of juggling and timing involved. (I also encountered a few bugs that caused Zau to freeze with a certain ability, meaning an automatic failure as he was consumed by raging flames—a detail that made the difficult level even more painful.) During this section, Zau escapes from a subsequent erupting volcano. Fight the malicious GaGorib. While chased by smoke and lava, Zau must hack and climb walls, dodge obstacles, and perform precise, well-timed platforming moves to survive. The sticking point for me was that wall-breaking push that was timed directly after a gooseneck swing — I ended up in lava more times than I can count. I wasn't completely comfortable doing it, and every time I penetrated it felt like a miracle. The section, with no save point, went on for a long time, and after an hour or so, I finally got through it. By then, I was frustrated and tired, and my thumb was hurting. I was angry at the game and also angry at myself. I almost stopped playing. But the feeling of Zhao breaking through the final barrier was a huge relief, a feeling that was a real accomplishment. A relief that made the struggle worth it. Unbeknownst to me, this level is very close to the end of the game – and one of the last major challenges I face Tales of Kenzira: Zao. It's the perfect time for such a challenge, the culmination of many messy and complicated emotions for Zhao and me.

I finished the game crying as Zao's story ended, because I too struggle with grief in my life — the anticipatory kind, but grief nonetheless. I'm not ready to accept that yet, and I'm not sure I ever will. But I'm leaving Tales of Kenzira: Zao Knowing that comfort is possible, no matter how far-fetched.

Tales of Kenzira: Zao It will be released on April 23 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. This does not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions on products purchased through affiliate links. You can find Additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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