Under the sea, under the sea
Sunlight dances and spatters across the surface of the sea, but what mysteries are lurking beneath the waves? Abzû teases that in its very title: a combination of the Sumerian words Ab, meaning ocean, and Zû meaning deep, while the world drops away as a diver plummets gracefully down towards the depths.
Underneath lies a fantastical world of color, light, and sound. Hundreds of thousands of fish school around the diver, responding to sonar chirps or rushing forwards with her as she races towards the surface and flips into the air. It’s a game about the sheer joy of the moment—effortless flips and loops, swimming a serpentine loop through a shimmering forest of kelp, or daring to touch the ocean’s mightiest and noblest creatures and coaxing them into a spin. It’s also obvious that a lot of work went into the controls. Even when flipping upside down, taking a dive towards the sea floor, or leaping above the waves, the camera follows naturally, and there’s none of the clunkiness that usually pervades underwater levels.
Abzû has no oxygen meter, and there’s no risk of death. In fact, there are very few traditional game elements at all: no power-ups, no gear, no collectables beyond a few seashells (which only exist to encourage exploration), and no enemies to defeat. There’s a very small genre of games, the most recent of which have come out of ThatGameCompany, that fans like to describe as a “spiritual experience.” Abzû, though made by a different team, shares an art director with Journey and Flower, and the inspiration from both past works is clear. It’s not just the look and sound of the game but the tone, the emotional highs and lows, and the way the story is told. Despite the familiarity, though, Abzû is able to step out of the shadow of its predecessors and differentiate itself enough to stand on equal (though not, perhaps, greater) footing. The bright coral reefs and kelp forests of its opening are far from all the game has to offer. Though I won’t drop any spoilers here, there were moments of discovery that truly caught me by surprise, and there’s a real story and mystery to uncover.
There’s a secondary mode to the game as well, though it takes a back seat: Meditation. Throughout the game, the diver can seat herself at certain vistas, and the camera will drift away to follow nearby fish. The local ecosystems in full force; fish school and sharks swoop down to snatch up prey (sometimes even eating the point of view fish). An educational note in the corner points out the name of the species currently being observed. Once found, these points can be instantly accessed from the main menu, creating a sort of observable mini-aquarium that can be left to run as a background on the TV.
My few gripes with the game are extremely small and far apart. When trying to get a closer look at some clues to the game’s underlying mystery while in a tight space, it was occasionally tricky to position the camera and diver exactly where I wanted. The game’s handful of wild sequences of rushing color and sound when swept into a current are more interactive cutscene-like than game-like (though they’re extremely beautiful). Abzû‘s also quite short—my first playthrough, with lots of time spent poking into every corner and just swimming around having fun, took only four or five hours, and a second more straightforward one to pick up a few missing collectables was completed in half the time. This is by design; it’s an emotional journey that’s meant to be played in a single sitting, and in a world with tons of 60+ hour games, that can be a relief. Those who love exploring for months in massive settings like Skyrim, however, might be caught by surprise when the credits roll.
There’s so much to Abzû: a poignant journey, an absolutely stellar soundtrack, twists and discoveries that took me by surprise. Since the game’s very short, it’s difficult to go into detail without spoiling anything, but there’s also an emotional essence there that can’t be easily described or related secondhand. Abzû‘s more than just a game: it’s an experience. And a fantastic one at that.
|Developer: Giant Squid Studios • Publisher: 505 Games • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 08.02.16|
A riot of color, emotion, and sea life wrapped up in a stellar soundtrack and stunning visuals; Abzû walks a fine line between being a game and being a near-spiritual experience.
|The Good||If “near-spiritual experience” can be a genre, that’s the label for Abzû.|
|The Bad||The credits roll too soon—after only four hours or so—and that’s if you take your time.|
|The Ugly||Nothing. Giant Squid can make even a giant squid look cute.|
|Abzû is available on PS4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by 505 Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|