The Steam Next Fest is now underway and that means we've got an awful lot of game demos to plow through in a very short amount of time. One early standout I've run is a metroidvania called Tales of Kenzara: Zau, a story about a shaman in the land of Kenzara attempting to reclaim his father's spirit. Tales of Kenzara: Zau was first revealed at the 2023 Game Awards: it's the debut project from a new studio headed up by Assassin's Creed Origins voice actor Abubakar Salim.
Gameplay in Tales of Kenzara: Zau is familiar: Running, jumping, and sliding across a multilevel 2.5D landscape, with pauses to do battle with various sorts of fantastical creatures and, of course, the occasional boss fight. It's fast, smooth, and accessible even for non-metroidheads: Zau wields an arsenal of upgradeable ranged and melee combat powers but a "relaxed" gameplay mode keeps fights from becoming too overwhelming, and while it recommends a gamepad I found the mouse and keyboard controls perfectly fine, aside from some aiming wonkiness with ranged attacks.
What makes it stand out, though, is the gorgeous landscapes and lore of the fictional nation of Kenzara, as well as the narrative: A tale of a son who makes a deal with the god of death to bring back his Baba—his father—from the land of darkness. The portrayal of the god of death is particularly interesting. Rather than a terrifying Grim Reaper type, he's a firm-but-fair father figure himself who, after gently trying to discourage Zau from undertaking the dangerous quest, encourages and admonishes him as necessary along the way.
Tales of Kenzara: Zau is "inspired by Bantu tales" as well as Salim's own "journey of grief" after the death of his father. "I wanted to create this honest and truthful experience," Salim said during a recent preview event. "I kind of had this mentality of, if I only had one chance of doing something, one chance of having my story heard, it has to be real, it has to be honest, it has to be—I have to be vulnerable while sharing it."
Abubakar Salim reveals Tales of Kenzara: Zau at The 2023 Game Awards.
Salim's previous game credits are entirely as a performer. He portrayed Bayek in Assassin's Creed Origins—his first videogame performance , according to Mobygames—and followed that with roles in games including Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Xenoblade Chronicles 3, Diablo 4, and Stray Gods. He founded Surgent Studios in 2019 as "a creative vehicle for powerful stories across various media from film and TV to games, podcasts and beyond," and described the transition from voice actor to studio head in a single word: "Terrifying!"
"I've always wanted to tell stories, and I think the bug sort of bit me when I did Assassin's Creed Origins," Salim said. "That was the first time I actually stepped behind the scenes and saw how a game was made. The thing that really stuck out to me was, for all the sets I've been on and shows I've done, the people at Ubi, when I was talking to them, they all loved and cared about what they were doing. They loved making games.
"That kind of feeling, I wanted to capture and really work on. Truly, that transition definitely had a lot of learnings, but it's funny—I remember when people say like, 'Oh, if you knew what you do now, would you do it again?' And I can say, absolutely not! It's hard! But I think I was driven by the sense of wanting to tell this story—this one chance to do something that felt right. And it's definitely aided, kind of acted as a North Star, to kind of help that transition."
If the Tales of Kenzara: Zau demo is anything to go by, the transition is going well, hard though it may be. The demo will be available until the end of the current Steam Next Fest on February 12, while the full game is set for release on April 23.