Games that are set under the deep blue always leave me with a certain anxiety. From the stress of ensuring your character doesn’t drown and always has access to an air supply to the uncertainty of what may lie beneath the surface of the waters. However, Abzû removes both of these pressures and instead delivers a serene and enthralling experience.
Developed by Giant Squid Studios, the studio headed by Journey creative director Matt Nava, Abzû is an underwater exploration game that follows a nameless character as they navigate through several underwater environments including; coral reefs, deep ocean floors and flooded ruins.
Gameplay is simple but satisfying. The game takes a novel approach with its swimming mechanics and once mastered you feel completely weightless as you glide through the environments. There’s also a boost button that enables you to build speed, a button to perform rolls in the water and one to interact with the environment and its inhabitants.
Levels follow a linear path but we are encouraged to explore each new area we find ourselves in. There is some very light puzzle solving involved which is mostly based on finding the lever to open a door but the developer makes it clear that exploration is the main objective.
Of course Abzû isn’t a perfect game and it does have its share of shortcomings. The camera at times can make swimming feel less fluid; particularly when navigating through more enclosed areas. The frame rate can also dip in areas that are heavily populated and whilst this is more noticeable in some sections, it wasn’t enough to deter me from continuing.
However, where the game may stumble with some technical setbacks, it more than succeeds with it’s artistic triumphs. Not only is each environment visually stunning and unique from the last, the soundtrack perfectly sets a tone to match each location you are exploring. You can tell a lot of care was put into the atmosphere of the game and it pays off to perfection.
You’d be forgiven for seeing similarities to Journey. The two share the same creative director and therefore the unwavering art style and tone do draw comparisons. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing as Journey was one of the most unique and powerful games I’ve played.
Like Journey, Abzû also abandons straightforward storytelling for a more abstract and interpretive experience. Players uncover elements of the narrative through their exploration and as the game progresses we find clues of a lost civilisation and hieroglyphs and paintings on the walls of the sunken ruins. Whilst this form of storytelling may seem too abstract and vague to some, I enjoyed the ambiguity and obscurity of the story which will undoubtedly keep me coming back again to see if there are new elements to it I can find.
One observation that makes Abzû differ to Journey is the sealife that occupies each area of the game. Journey felt like a very lonely experience, until you found your companion, and carried an air of death throughout as your character made their way through what appeared to be graveyards in the desert. Abzû however, is bursting with life and encourages you to embrace and interact with it as much as possible.
The most joyous moments were those where you interacted with the sealife around you. You can swim alongside a herd of whales, leap out of the waters with some Orca or perform somersaults with a pod of dolphins. The sealife in Abzû is plentiful and at times gigantic but never overwhelming or intimidating.
Whilst it suffers from minor technical flaws, Abzû is an artistic masterpiece. From the lush environments, fluid gameplay and abundance of underwater life to observe and interact with, it is a quiet and thoughtful experience.
The comparisons to Matt Nava’s previous project, Journey, are apparent. However, the game warrants the right to standalone and deserves to be experienced on its own merit.