If art design and musical composition alone were the hallmarks of great games, then Abzû would be among the best indies in the business. The simple, stylised design work, and mesmerizing score for developer Giant Squid’s short, freediving adventure is on par with the title the artistic minds behind it previously worked on and lovingly mimicked. However as beautiful as it is, it seems the team forgot a few of the core components that are required for titles with no dialogue.
Without saying a word or giving purpose, Abzû invites players to explore a variety of underwater environments while unlocking their mysteries and interacting with a vast array of beautiful creatures. Basic controller-based inputs allow you to swim through simple obstacles, meditate, and gaze upon each zone’s unique sea life. Unfortunately, there just isn’t much “game,” in this two to three hour experience.
Credit where credit is due, the title works wonders as a relaxation device, but should you wish to dive deeper, be warned that unlike it’s spiritual predecessor Journey, I found the environmental storytelling to be poor, with little-to-no purpose or meaning for the game given. After my brief time with the title, while captivated by the artwork, music and spending some time interacting with the different wildlife, the tale itself left me annoyed at how little it managed to move me beyond the few awe inspiring instances.
The first time I played with the dolphins and they followed along as I leapt in and out of the water. Or the moment after swimming through a confining cavern out into the blackness of a seemingly endless trench that gave me flashbacks to real-life scuba diving moments. Then there was the majesty of swimming alongside a massive blue whale and and it’s pod, with the camera locking in place so I could take in its size compared to the diver, and the realization of how deep we were going – that there was nothing but water and blue hued darkness all around us. These, and moments like these are what really worked for me, but the beauty and awe they brought forth came without well-informed meaning in the context of the game itself.
You see, other than these occasional, brief moments of relaxation, joy, or wonder, there were few times where the emotion I could see they were trying to evoke felt earned. It’s like they were working with the blueprints of a masterpiece, but lacked the narrative skills to stitch it together. In fact, Abzû is beat for beat Journey with hints of a Babylonian creation myth - complete with the latter’s stunning art and sound, but sorely missing much of it’s heart and skillful storytelling stylings.
With what I felt was no context or hint at a purpose, waking up as the unknown diver at the entrance to an underwater cave and going on this adventure meant little. If it’s based on a creation myth, then why do creatures already inhabit the environments?
Nothing is explained - even the hieroglyphics and painting adorned walls do little to provide insight to the overall narrative. Watching the sea life move in schools, pods, and packs while hunting down their food is pretty neat though. Do I have my own theories as to what the game is about? Sure, but as versed as I am in leaving things open to interpretation (and I feel I am), the amount of mental gymnastics I felt I had to do for things to have meaning left quite the sour taste in my mouth.
It’s all just so disappointing that unlike the intended concept behind the meaning of the game’s name as told by the creators: “Ab, meaning ocean, and Zû, meaning to know. Abzû is the ocean of wisdom” - there doesn’t seem to be much to learn from your time in the ocean; and despite going deep, I found little depth in the game’s meaning. I’ll let you come up with your own interpretation, but whatever it is, I found it wanting.
When it comes to gameplay, the puzzles are simple flip-a-switch designs, and within each area there are a number of unlockables, which you can track via statues filling their appropriate spaces in a wall later in the game. Among the few things you can find, only the nifty drones you encounter seem to hold any real purpose beyond being pretty AI to add to an already hefty roster of life to stare at while meditating upon certain statues.
Playing on PC I found the keyboard and mouse controls to be difficult to use, and completely unexplained. During the tutorial the PlayStation 4’s controller is the displayed input device, and I wasn’t able to find any sort of keyboard bindings or layout in the game’s menus - so I quickly resorted to connecting a DS4 up via USB; just in case I had to use the touchpad – which I didn’t.
As stated, the art design is great, and the wide open-to-explore areas can be breathtaking to behold. Exploring is easy and enjoyable enough, and the game itself ran silky smooth for the majority of my sessions, only stuttering or slowing down a couple of times during the experience.
Audio wise the music is stunning. Pieces flow between each other and change perfectly on cue based on the situation. Underwater effects sound great, and it’s pretty cool hearing the noises coming from various animals. I would happily return to the title to show off, or simply leave on the meditation sections - which, after experiencing and unlocking them during the game, can be accessed from an independant menu with ease.
Here’s the thing: at the end of the day Abzû is not a bad game – it’s just not great. There are cool things to experience, but as simple and beautiful as it is, it never managed to hit the stellar heights of the game that inspired it. For a 2-3 hour title, and the option to return to your favourite levels for collectable hunting, or load the different meditation scenes for some soothing background noise and imagery, the game is worth a look, but as much as it pains to say, you won’t be missing anything major if you wait on it for a sale.