ABZU Review: Underwater Wonder
At the start of Giant Squid Studios and 505 Games’ new release, ABZU, the game immediately brings you into a vast, oceanic expanse that’s bluer than the sky above you. As a mysterious diver, you start off stranded in the middle of the ocean, unsure of where to go. Looking miles ahead shows only more ocean beyond what you can see.
But, diving down below? Well, below the surface offers an experience that’s mystical and breathtaking, and while it will be hard to go into too much detail about what ABZU offers (without either spoiling it or giving away some of its biggest thrills), it’s easy to say that Giant Squid’s title is one that will leave players with equal amounts of joy, heartbreak, and awe.
Developed by Giant Squid Studios, ABZU is a (largely) linear exploration experience, where players take on the role of a mysterious diver that wanders into an underwater wonderland. For the most part, the progression and gameplay are kept fairly simple; the controls are boiled down to swimming (along with a boost move to swim faster) and an interact button to talk to various undersea creatures and various objects that you will encounter.
That simplicity in its controls and design won’t put ABZU up against the AAA experiences some may be craving, but what ABZU may lack in depth and complexity for its controls/progression, it more than makes up for in its presentation, aesthetic, and most of all its breathtaking visuals and soundtrack. With a smaller scope and a vague, player-driven narrative experience that relies on the player to uncover its deeper meaning,
ABZU is nevertheless a stunning example of the capabilities of games as a medium that’s just as capable of producing thoughtful, artistic works as any other.
ABZU and the “underwater journey” it takes players on provides both a literal and metaphorical meaning when it comes to its gameplay experience and another narrative, emotional experience, Journey. That literal interpretation comes down to the game’s development team, with the title being the first project from Giant Squid Studios, with creative director Matt Nava having previously served as the art director of Journey and Flower.
I bring this up in the sense that ABZU offers an experience that players of those two games (from developer thatgamecompany) will find very familiar in a lot of striking ways, with Journey composer Austin Wintory also bringing his talents to the game’s soundtrack. It would be easy to boil down ABZU to those core inspirations, but the game still offers a deeply emotional and personal experience that easily makes it stand alongside those titles, rather than beholden to them.
ABZU takes players through a linear story divided up into several chapters, that (by and large) is a short experience on its own at about an hour to finish the “story.” Through that hour though, players will be swept up as the diver plunges deeper and deeper through the environments for sights as striking as they are surreal, while also uncovering some darker, more menacing threats looming beneath the ocean floor.
However, the real enjoyment of ABZU comes out of exploration and discovery, with plenty of opportunities for players to explore each of the environments at their own pace. While the core experience is brief, the visual depth and details that Giant Squid have put in to ABZU make it absolutely worth getting lost at sea, and waiting to see what awaits in the game’s different areas.
A big part of that are the visuals, as ABZU bursts with color, life, and plenty of visual splendor from its character and creature designs to its vivid and lush environments. Given the equipment and locations needed to do actual scuba diving (let alone the training needed), ABZU is more than a worthy alternative without the need to worry about air tanks, flippers, or encountering
man-eating sharks too many dangerous things in the sea.
However, what is there in ABZU is striking and beautiful, with dozens of different fish and other sea creatures to be found throughout the journey. While I kept on to see the game’s story through its end, it’s easy to kept swept up in the sights that ABZU has to offer, whether it was swimming through a school of hundreds of fish, or holding on to the fin of a massive whale while plunging deep into the depths of the ocean.
From its visual standpoint alone, ABZU is the type of game I could leave on in the background of my home for its soothing and dream-like visuals, and though screenshots give a good indication of how it looks and plays, seeing it in motion is an entirely different experience on its own. Of course, the deep and emotional connection that ABZU will bring players on is bolstered by the soundtrack of Austin Wintory, and has (rightfully) earned a place among some of my most beloved game soundtracks.
With his previous work on Journey, Wintory once again captures a feeling of awe and wonder with his soundtrack for ABZU, as the score is nothing less than chill-inducing. As my character swirled and dove deep into the ocean’s depths, so too did the score help to evoke that endless sense of thrill and discovery while exploring the ocean and uncovering the mysteries (and beauties) that lied ahead.ABZU will inevitably draw plenty of comparisons, whether it’s to the likes of Journey, Flower, or many of the other games that have contributed to the endless discussions of “games as art.” However, as much as ABZU seems like a “what you see is what you get” experience of being a “diving simulator,” the comparisons are only surface deep.
Like the hauntingly beautiful ocean that ABZU has players explore, the real thrill and joy of playing ABZU comes down to going deep beneath the surface to experience its sights and sounds it offers, and the personal and emotional connections that are bound to be found. ABZU may be short on deep, complex gameplay or a lengthy narrative, but is more than capable of providing one of the most stirring, surreal gameplay experiences that (I hope) players will experience this year. As long as you’re willing, ABZU is absolutely an experience worth being swept up in and letting you take it wherever it goes.