Abzû PC Review
Abzû will instantly recall feelings for people that played Thatgamecompany’s Journey. It’s a title that aims to delivery a very similar experience, one that communicates an adventure through artistic visuals and simple, minimal interactions and its atmospheric score. It’s a perfect game to play while sat down on a comfy sofa to unwind with Abzû’s relaxingly pacific underwater experience, which with the warm and wet weather, seems like a game that hit the right note for an afternoon play to alleviate stress and succumb to the fascinating wonders of the ocean that is laid bare for the player.
A beautiful moving shot of the ocean greets the player once starting a new game on Abzû ‘s uncluttered start menu, then the camera takes a deep dive into the bright blue ocean. Deeper and deeper it goes until light becomes dark, hitting what seems to be the darkness at the bottom of the ocean with a glowing red light. Suddenly the camera transitions to a floating entity, a silent yellow and black diver who wakes up floating at the top of what could be an advertisement for the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean. It’s here where the controls are quickly introduced, simple mechanics to get your way through the vast ocean, and then the 100 plus minute journey truly begins after a free ride on a giant fish.
Similar to Journey, the story here isn’t laid before the player. There is a mystery to solve, but not through cutscenes or text, but from exploring and visual identification. It is presented in an abstract way – even more so than Journey, as I at least got the gist of that story – that I am still trying to understand about the game’s titbits with a friend of mine. It does not make it easy to know who exactly the diver is, where you are and who you meet. Our discussion group has different ideas about what the game has conveyed to us, which keeps us talking about the game and the experience we felt. In the end, while people might be tapping their chin to come up with a conclusive theory about its story maybe telling us to be nice to the environment, one thing that doesn’t take a great detective to figure out is what the game excels at – bringing together wonderfully pure set pieces.
But first, let’s clear some air about the controls, because swimming in video games hasn’t always been successfully implemented, even if the game is great, it can easily succumb to awful oxygen restrictions or disastrous swimming mechanics that make aquatic movement more of a frustration than fun. Abzû makes swimming feel good with its elegant and straightforward controls built around an Xbox One controller (the store page has a warning saying “A controller is strongly recommended to play ABZU”). Holding down the right trigger causes the diver to go forward, while the stick acts as 3D movement, similar to those 3D sections in the classic N64 game Lylat Wars. The controls are so easy to grasp that it only takes a few minutes before it become a natural extension of your hands. This is a game where you swim, you can grab onto bigger animals for a lift or tap a button three times rhythmically for a boost of speed and rise to the ocean skin to break through to create your take on that scene in Free Willy.
Getting the controls correct for something you do 99% of does wonders for motivation. This is a title that wants you to soak in everything around you and explore each area that the diver comes across. Never having to fight against the controls or worrying about holding breath means I wanted to go explore and discover, I wanted to see what that shiny collectable was in the corner or see what creature or decoration was hiding away, and the outcome was always pleasant.
The developers, Giant Squid, have created multiple underwater environments, a virtual oceanic ride, which is packed with sea-life of various kind used to present an ecosystem that compellingly reproduces aquatic life. Plant life swish around the current of the water, fish group together and do the tornado dance that you would see in a Sir David Attenborough documentary – he is also thanked in the credits – and spread apart when interrupted, predators hunt for their next meal, and you can grab onto a fin of a dolphin and go for a ride. It’s all magical and jammed with colours that nearly every screenshot makes for an awe-inspiring desktop wallpaper. I believe the developers knew they had something marvellous to adore, as throughout the game there are places where the diver can meditate, allowing the player to move the camera to the local animals and track their movement as they go about their daily living, letting you soak in the detail around the diver. The ocean is like meeting a new friend and discovering all their neat traits and characteristics with in a couple of hours, with even some of the sea life become attached to the diver as the game progresses on. Abzû ‘s world feels like a living breathing entity full of neat discovers that make it the main attraction.
I don’t want to spoil any of the gorgeous scenes that unfold, especially when the camera pans to a 2D scroller or a 3D on-rails section, as these scenes are aimed to be impactful, like how sliding around the sand in Journey was unforgettable, there will be at least a scene here that will leave a similar memory. Although, even with all the millions of sea life animated in the game, Abzû remains a very solo occurrence, as no online connectivity means no chance to meet unexpected swimmers who are around the same part of the game as yourself. I do miss that inclusion, as the ocean seems like the perfect location to come across other people, but I understand not wanting to carbon copy such an impactful game, especially one that the creative director of Abzû, Matt Nava, worked on as an art director and whose art truly shines again here. In fact, he is not alone with the transition to a new studio, as Austin Wintory, the Grammy nominated composer for his work on Journey, brings a different sounding score for Abzû, one that represents the graceful dynamic qualities of the ocean with a majestic ambient soundtrack.
No matter the beauty or the tranquillity experience one can gain from playing Abzû, there is no denying that some people will not understand the attraction. In terms of gameplay, Abzû is incredibly straightforward with virtually no challenge from it. There is no sense of threat or danger, since the diver cannot die, no matter how many times an electrical device zaps them, and the only brain engagement comes from following chains to flip a few switches or dodging an ocean full of traps, but even then, they require minimal effort from the player to pass.
Abzû might not offer an easy to digest story, but those missteps are made up with a dazzling experience, some marvellous set-pieces, beautiful visuals packed with vivid colours, and a lovely soundtrack. All this artistic work gels together for a relaxing and reflective afternoon of wonderment. It’s a game that takes concepts from a similar game, Journey, and uses the ocean as a way to bring its own vision, one that should be casually travelled through rather than blazed to completion to truly ingest what Abzû‘s living ocean world offers.