Abzû brings us to a familiar place, despite the new setting. It surely takes from the same evocative sources that fueled Journey but it does stand on its own, challenging your idea of what videogames are and providing a remarkable experience in its own right.
When I plunge into those deep waters, I am already fond of the world my eyes are about to see. There’s something in the screen that feels familiar, something I can recognize. I wonder whether it’s the melody that starts playing, the luring consistence of the ocean or the fact that a part of me regards Abzû as the underwater sibling to Journey. It is probably all of that together. One cannot be too careful about comparisons. Abzû has lived with the “spiritual successor” tag for a while now but, as the voyage progressed, I’m very satisfied to see that its creators have found their own way of conveying this story.
Truth be told, I’ve been waiting for a fairly long time to play Abzû. Probably since Giant Squid brought it into the spotlight two years ago, during E3. Led by Matt Nava, the art director of Flower and Journey, Giant Squid has been fairly obvious presenting their first game as another artistic ride. They do not strive for less and they certainly know what they are doing. The game comes for PC and PlayStation 4 which of course brings a graphical enhancement with it. But as we know, resolution cannot account for the totality of a game’s atmosphere. Here is where the minds of Giant Squid do their best. Abzû’s universe is crafted within its own principles, its own harmony but, above all, with care.
Moving Around with Ease
Right after the first introduction is done, I find myself controlling a slender figure, the Diver. He’s just woken up, floating adrift in the middle of nowhere. Abzû is all about super easy-to-grasp, intuitive gameplay. This is evident as soon as the action starts. There’re about a handful of options you can browse through: swim, flap around, interact with objects and creatures and singing under water. Yes, the Diver has his own tune to chant although this feature lacks dialogue possibilities or further purpose. In other words, there’s nothing to gain from singing, apart from some intimate moments with your diving probes.
Following Journey’s legacy, the core flow of Abzû is to keep on advancing through beautiful levels, solving puzzles every now and then. With the sole-exception of two mini-challenges by the middle of the game, the rest of it is fairly simple and won’t confront you unsolvable schemes. It’s fairly obvious that Giant Squid is not interested in that at all. They want us to traverse the levels and get engulfed within the mysterious story that happens in the background. You won’t get stuck in a place more than some minutes – unless you are “meditating” (but I’ll come to that later). And even if you keep on failing those few challenges, there is no death as such within the game and therefore, no sudden ending. You keep on moving, like the ocean currents.
A Story Under the Waves
Abzû is devoid of any traditional dialogue. Instead, the game relies on the unspoken, some sparks of action and the weight of its levels. After spending the first minutes cheerfully recovering some probes and interacting with fishes, whales and turtles (aren’t they just magical), I realize that the Diver is slowly heading into some sort of ruins. Here is where everything starts getting cryptic. Journey used exactly the same very mechanism, that invitation to the unknown. On top of that, the outline of a nemesis appears with the shape of a white shark, pondering my arrival. The music kind of dies when that happens. Nasty business.
Amid those vestiges lays the story of a civilization, told by glazed murals. But I’m still unsure of the role played by the Diver in all of this – or his probes. Is he the last remnant of those people? Or maybe a water archaeologist trying to unveil what happened here hundreds of years ago? Also, what’s that shark doing there and why is it so elusive? Is this a sacred place that needs a guardian, perhaps? Abzû keeps the momentum for all those questions and it hints to the answers, without giving you anything final. And only when you think everything is flowing naturally, surprise hits and here comes the big plot twist. Which of course I will keep secret to avoid spoiling all your fun.
Abzû’s story resembles that one of Journey’s in that it is equally spiritual. There’s a sort of holy tone surrounding the closing mission and how the game is wrapped together, leaving you in awe. I also found it more concrete somehow. Maybe because Abzû detaches from fantasy themes of its predecessors sometimes and plunges into more palpable science fiction themes, full with machines and industrial sounds. It’s a combination that works fine and definitely gives this game a darker tune than that of Journey. For a while, at least.
What Comes Up Short
When it comes to the list of improvements, Abzû could certainly do with some polish on its diving mechanics. For a game that relies so much in the experience created by that aquatic world, the controls feel a tiny bit sloppy sometimes, not entirely fluid (which is the type of sensation you’d expect to achieve). For instance, flapping down vertically and into ditches collides with how the camera rotates every now and then, making it hard to maneuver in the direction you want to go. Call me picky, but this broke the overall immersion for me.
This also applied to the Meditating feature of the game – which otherwise it’s a nice gift from Giant Squid and a beautiful tribute to marine life. When exploring the game, you can sit over several animal-shaped statues that make for a perfect zen spot. By meditating you can stop your adventure and jump to watch different families of creatures as they swim by, smooth music and water sounds all over. What could have been a contemplative gaming paradise got a tad more stumbling thanks to weird camera angles. I’d like to add, however, that this is a very minor issue and in no way does it hinder the whole Abzû experience.
Another thing that bugged me for a bit was the lack of a multiplayer mode. If you have played Journey, you know exactly what I’m referring to. If not, enough for you to know that Journey brought a rather original way of partnering two people together. Well, Abzû is a 100% single-player experience and it does not repeat Journey’s online legacy. It does not need it, but on the other hand, but I keep on wondering about how much this game could have profited from it. Marine creatures and cheerful diving probes will keep you company anyway. Or even that white shark. Ah no, wait, do not get close to that one. Bad idea.
Special Props to Austin Wintory
Last but not least, I cannot close this review without pouring a glass of champaign and toasting to the good health of Austin Wintory (Journey, The Banner Saga 1 and 2, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate). He proves once again that videogames need talented composers more than ever. Wintory’s melodies are not only a complement in Abzû, they are the glue that keeps structure and atmosphere together. Wintory’s creations sound at their best best when the game heads into an apotheosis of color and meaning. As with Journey, the beginning and finishing songs will stay with you after finishing the game.
You can get a first taste of Wintory’s music and general vibe in our recent game session video.