A Journey Underwater
According to ancient mythologies, ‘AB’ stood for water and ‘ZÛ,’ to know. ‘ABZÛ’, then has been given the meaning by the development team as, ‘the ocean of wisdom’. If you’re still reading this review, I guess you realise that yes this is one of those pretentious artistic indie games that are all the rage this days. But this one has some serious pedigree behind it, the game’s studio (Giant Squid) was founded by Journey’s art director, a 2012 game that wowed players with its evocative style and soundtrack. Happily Austin Wintory also returns to score Abzû’s soundtrack too.
Indeed even if you just take a passing glance at Abzû, the similarities to both Journey and Flower are overwhelmingly obvious. It begins abruptly, dropping players into the role of a mysterious character on important, undefined quest. Instead of a desert, you wake up floating on the surface of a great ocean, dive beneath and you discover a vast, stunning world lies in wait. Furthermore, like Journey, the storytelling is ambiguous throughout. There are no spoken words in the game, only images, the player can search for some pieces of context if you wish but the experience is mainly left to interpretation.
Abzû attempts to emulate the experience players had with these games, albeit this time with an underwater setting. It’s gorgeous, but it stumbles in a few key aspects, namely in the lack of risks taken in its level design and puzzles.
In terms of gameplay, Abzû is generally separated into two different sections – one where you’re free roaming around a small hub area, exploring and interacting with all manner of sea creatures, which is a genuine pleasure. The other has you solving some very light puzzles to achieve the rebirth of previously dead areas of the ocean.
It’s a wonderfully unhurried game, allowing you to peacefully float through a gorgeous oceanscape at your own pace, never forcing you to move on until you’ve sated your curiosity. Unfortunately however, the game’s very linear structure renders such exploration entirely artificial. The awe-inspiring nature of the ocean is minimized through the banality of the puzzles – pulling lever, opening a door etc. In an environment that should be filled with endless possibilities, it’s perhaps damning that the game’s quirkiest feature is the chance to meditate and watch weird and wonderful sea life.
It’s clear that Giant Squid wanted to make a minimalistic experience, but by trying to make the game’s objectives as unobtrusive as possible, they’ve become the exact kind of chore that they would have hoped to avoid. I suppose the crux of what I’m saying here, is there’s no real ambition, no risk-taking here. Not least because there’s no multiplayer option, which enabled some of Journey’s most interesting insights into the human experience.
It does control well though, typically underwater sequences in games are a bit of a mess, regardless of an entire game being set underwater. Happily, Abzû is really quite fluid in terms of movement and camera control. To swim forward all you have to do it hold the right trigger, and if you want to go a little faster you just rhythmically tap the ‘X’ button. It never feels frustrating, there’s a lovely feeling of elegance to it all truth be told.
The aspect that will leave the biggest impression on players however is the stunning presentation. Schools of fish dart past your line of sight, enormous kelp forests sway lazily in the currents, and the sunlight dazzles as it touches the ocean floor. The use of colour is similarly breathtaking, shimmering pinks and blues give the game’s locales an almost alien, ethereal-like quality.
There’s also a lot of variation in the environments too, as you progress the stages change almost like the seasons, emerald-tinged plants give way to those adorned with the colours of autumn. In addition, pristine natural worlds transition to submerged structures and ancient murals.
Besides the beauty, the sheer density of life in some environments are staggering. Fish and other creatures swim and react to both yours and each other’s presence in a completely believable manner, to create remarkable displays of colour and movement; such as great bait balls of fish, hundreds upon hundreds that you can swim between and interact with. It’s an incredible achievement of animation.
I also must mention Austin Wintory’s beautiful score, one of the biggest highlights of the game, completely immersive, joyous and packed with so much sophisticated detail, just like the ocean depths themselves.
Abzû is a deeply calming experience, with spectacular artistry and sound, but is ultimately somewhat unsatisfying. While it tries to emulate Journey in its look and feel, it’s missing the cohesion that made that game special. The puzzles here are verge on the pointless and the setting feels paradoxically restrictive. It’s a game that only takes around 2-3 hours to complete with no real replayability, so it’s not an experience you’ll be spending much time in.
There’s a decent game here for fans of this type of thing, just don’t expect a classic.
+ Outstanding presentation
+ Incredible orchestral score
+ Serene atmosphere
+ Easy to control