Abzû Review - Gone Swimming

From the first impressions of Abzû, announced at E3 2014, it was clear this wasn't going to be any sort of typical gaming experience. It appeared to be a blend of thatgamecompany's award-winning masterpiece Journey (PS3) and Nintendo's Endless Ocean (Wii), with solid diving controls and an emphasis on beautiful underwater environments and realistic sea creatures.

However, both Endless Ocean and its sequel Endless Ocean: Blue World did have distinct goals and challenges, and the ability to freely dive in true-to-life locations (albeit with motion controls) was a major highlight. Similarly to those games, Abzû does encourage some exploration in fantastic, eye-popping, vertical environments, but there is a clear linear path to follow and the few obstacles that get in the player's way are fairly straightforward.

Developer Giant Squid, with the leadership of game director Matt Nava (an Art Director on Journey and the experimental, also award-winning Flower), have crafted a truly beautiful experience that is gorgeous to behold, and even more wonderful to play. The name 'Abzu' is said to be a combination of the ancient words 'Ab' (ocean) and 'Zû' (wisdom), and thus the developers claim that Abzû is a work that draws inspiration from the deepest depths of human subconscious and ancient cross-cultural myths.

Much like Journey, with which Abzû shares a lot of structural similarities, it's difficult to classify Abzû as a game. The mystical trip itself, not the destination, is emphasized. Gorgeous environments ranging from reefs to ruins and new species await behind each corner. At times it is closer to a work of interactive cinema, or a massive art installation. Moments of danger keep you on your flippers. There are sections where the pace speeds up as your character, The Diver, traverses swift ocean currents. Floating drone assistants can be found occasionally; their job is to help break down barriers or light the way in darker sections.

 

The environmental puzzles here are simple by any measure and aren't as much gates to progress as they are an incentive to more fully explore. Thanks to the intuitive controls, there is nothing particularly challenging or demanding about the gameplay, which frees the player's mind in a lot of ways. Abzû is less a typical 'game' and more like a transcendent, immersive virtual diving simulator with fantastic/sci-fi elements. Don't get me wrong; there is a story conveyed in non-verbal forms, but because it unfolds organically as the Diver progresses, the less one knows going in, the better.

The real triumph here are the models, animations, and behavior of all the sea creatures. Taken from true-to-life blue whales, sharks, dolphins, orcas, rays, sea turtles, jellyfish, and nearly every underwater species you can think of, they are truly majestic and rendered with loving detail. Even their behaviors seem accurate as you will see larger fish eat smaller ones, and mammals such as orcas and dolphins communicating with one another and leaping from the water in joy. I daresay there are those who will play this game and feel compelled to take an interest in marine life conservation.

As in Journey and Flower, the controls feel smooth, fluid, and freeing. Movement may take a few minutes to become accustomed to, but it quickly becomes second nature. The Diver can 'pulse' to interact with the ocean denizens, free trapped creatures, and even 'hold' onto larger sea creatures and ride them around the environments. They may even help to guide you.

In each of the 'open' spaces you encounter, there are statues atop which the Diver can sit and meditate; as she does so, the camera shifts to focus on the sea creatures and the player can pick and choose which one to follow, allowing you to simply sit back and marvel at the wonders of nature. Other games reward the player with upgrades or changes to the gameplay, but in Abzû, it's the little moments such as these that give one pause.

If there's one nit I would be comfortable picking with this game, it's the short length (2-3 hours if you're rushing through, 4-5 on a relaxed playthrough, and 10+ if you're exploring every nook and cranny for each of the meditation statues, shells, and hidden pools). Even though I loved every minute of Abzû and there was no 'filler' content, it did feel over too quickly. If you aren't a stickler for exploration and unearthing hidden collectibles, there isn't much in the way of replay value aside from simply playing through to marvel at its beauty, meditating with it on in the background, or sharing the experience with others. Another cool feature is the ability to play through individual chapters of the campaign, so you don't need to start from the beginning each time you want to dive into your favorite section.

Abzû is a unique experience that deserves to be played at least once. Less a game than an interactive virtual trip through a mix of an aquarium and a modern art museum, it's a terrific treat for the senses, as well as a meditation on mankind's relationship to nature. Though the game is short, the developers accomplished their missions of putting the player in a mystical headspace and making them forget they are playing a game by fine-tuning the swimming controls, with some of the most fluid underwater movement in any game to date. All things considered, I highly recommend Abzû, especially to players with a mystical bent or a high appreciation for artistic beauty. I'll definitely be playing it again, as well as spreading the word. This is one of the most beautiful games out there.

Reviewed By: Joseph Choi


9/10


 

 

+Pros

  • Fantastic art direction, animations, and overall depictions of marine life
  • Amazing visceral experience and interactive qualities that are difficult to describe
  • Fluid underwater controls that put every other diving game to shame

 

- Cons

  • Very short at only 2-5 hours for one's first playthroug