Diving into the oceans of ABZU is well worth the treasures hidden beneath.
Developer: Giant Squid Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4 (Version reviewed)
Release Date: August 2nd, 2016
In the build-up to its release, many have identified the striking parallels between ABZU and 2012’s Journey, and the comparisons are indeed far from tenuous. Though the game comes from new developers Giant Squid Studios, both ABZU’s creative director and composer, Matt Nava and Austin Wintory respectively, arrive from the hallowed halls of Thatgamecompany, the highly revered team behind Flower and Journey.
Honestly, ABZU could even be considered something of a spiritual successor to both of those games, as the connective tissue between all three of them is unmistakable. An ambiguous story conveyed through symbolism, which explores the themes of life, death and rebirth? Check. Powerful, breath-taking visuals accompanied by a rousing, orchestral score? Yes, sir. Even the narrative arc of the game, divided into a set of distinctly unique acts, resembles that of Journey (heck, there’s even a section which harks back to that game’s memorable sand surfing sequence).
But, as anyone who’s played Journey or Flower will know, this shared DNA is hardly a bad thing. In fact, perhaps amidst the socio-political turmoil of real world events in 2016, ABZÛ represents the perfect getaway experience. It is a piece of interactive therapy; meditative, awe-inspiring, and truly unforgettable.
A lot of ABZU’s charm rests on the power of its presentation. It manages to confidently stand next to Uncharted 4 and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt as one of the prettiest games of this generation so far. The constantly diverse abundance of sea life ensures that no pixel goes to waste in creating an enchanting portrait of a world beneath the water, with the striking color palette and dramatic lighting all working to make for some “can’t look away” moments of wonder. Having taken over 100 screenshots during my first playthrough of the game, I can safely say that ABZU might well represent the best use of your DualShock 4’s share button when experienced on PlayStation 4.
In rare instances, however, the technical limitations of the game’s engine cannot seem to keep up with its artistic ambition. The frame-rate suffers, for example, whenever you get too close to some of the larger schools of fish found in the game. Your character, too, doesn’t always follow the direction you want her to go as you try to navigate the underwater 3D space. This occurs pretty irregularly though, as – for the most part – ABZU probably boasts the most accommodating underwater controls we’ve seen in a video game so far.
In between the more linear sections which work to progress each act, ABZU indulges in providing wide, open environments that are ripe for leisurely exploration as you enjoy the aesthetically pleasing atmosphere. At one point, I found myself serenely roaming around an area before I realized nearly an hour had passed without having made any real progression; turns out I had been too busy simply, and quite literally, bathing in the hypnotic ambiance of the world itself. There are certainly forms of interaction and minor puzzles to solve, but the four to five hour experience (admittedly a little short for a $20 price point) is intended to delight the senses rather than test your brainpower or hand-eye coordination.
The most meaningful form of interaction is via your ability to latch onto certain types of sea creatures and control their movement patterns, either to enhance your mobility or just to enjoy the ride. Without giving too much away, you will not be prepared for the kinds of creatures you encounter as you progress through the game, and the mystery of not knowing what to expect around the next corner was an exciting dimension to the story in and of itself.
As you might have ascertained by now, ABZU is not an experience to be rushed. There are a number of hidden secrets to discover, collectibles to find, and statues to “meditate” upon. These statues give you the opportunity to focus on the various creatures in the area, learning their species name and behavioral patterns in the process. The ecosystem of ABZU is not without a food chain, and you’ll witness many aquatic animals happily chowing down on others, though none of the sea life poses any immediate danger to yourself, and there is no combat to speak of.
Like the depths of the ocean itself, there is an air of mystery that surrounds the identity of your diver character and her place in this world. You can come to a number of conclusions about the context surrounding your journey through the environmental storytelling and symbolic imagery, but the narrative is intentionally cryptic, leaving plenty of the finer details up to interpretation. Instead, Giant Squid wishes to appeal to our sentiments, with sequences that elicit feelings of wonder, catharsis, empathy and fear via the power of the atmospheric gameplay itself. Even if you don’t catch what exactly is going on, you’ll still find yourself entranced by everything going on before you.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.