In the darkest depths of the ocean blue, there lies buried traces of forgotten scripts and obscured origins. This is the simple visual prompt which will propel you ever-forward through the beautiful veins of Abzû. Giant Squid Studios’ amble into the ineffable and profound asks only that you explore. On the surface, there isn’t much more to it than that. But Abzû is much more than that. You just have to look a little deeper.
Abzu hails from the mind of former thatgamecompany developer Matt Nava. Accordingly, if you’ve taken the time to frolic with Flow, Flower or Journey, you should know exactly what to expect: Abzû presents players with a handful of hours’ worth of meticulously crafted interactivity. As ever, there are both lows and highs. You’ll sink to the depths of despair; you’ll triumph over mountains of emotional resonance. These oscillations are communicated via worlds steeped in natural beauty and feeling. In the case of Abzû, you are presented with a seemingly endless ocean; a body of water free to explore.
At this point, you might have cause to worry that this increasingly identifiable brand of muted narrative is in danger of becoming predictable. It is with great pleasure that I can say this is not the case – not even a little. Far from a simple visual face-lift, Abzû manages to stand entirely on its own narrative merit. All the necessary jigsaw pieces that you would expect to find in a thatgamecompany product are still there – albeit juggled and reworked to shape something new.
Quite expectedly, Abzû is remarkably beautiful. Striking colours cascade and decorate every reef and sunken ruin in ways that make each memorable in their own right. Every animation flows fluidly. Every sight and sound holds something worthy of interest. Visually, Abzû is without blemish.
Abzû is a world alive. There can be so much going on that sometimes you just have to stop and take it all in. Submerged plains teem with all manner of marine life. Kinetic schools of gill-laden creatures enliven scenery like delicate strokes of a paint brush. And, like just about everything else in Abzû, these sea-fellows account for more than being virtual hundreds and thousands. Throughout the game, you’ll reach out and interact with them in increasingly elaborate, and ever surprising, ways. Ironically, these interactions account for much of Abzû’s delightfully spirited backbone.
Unfortunately, however, Abzû’s new control scheme is characterised by a surprising amount of clunk. Demanding a tango of bumper presses, sticks and face buttons, this system is awkwardly counter intuitive – my first few minutes with the game had me colliding headfirst into seabed more times than I’d like to remember. Even more to my surprise, this unease never quite went away. Right up to end credits, movement never ceased to feel clunky or – if an alternate camera angle was thrown into the mix – straight up confusing. Instances like these can occasionally make Abzû’s exploration-orientated flow feel a little choppy.
Beneath the pretty sights and visual heights, Abzû shuttles players through a neatly organic narrative current. While minimalist for the most part, this yarn does a fine job of adding texture to the beautiful aquarium around you. And, when the narrative does take the rudder more handedly, there arises more than a few incredible surprises.
Much like everything else, Abzû’s soundtrack is of incredible quality. A rich orchestral lineup never fails to bind the game’s most exhilarating, poignant or special moments with a fitting seal of finesse.
I could tell you more, but I don’t need to – more than anything, Abzû is about self-discovery. In fact, I’ve been deliberately spare on the specifics throughout this review for fear of spoiling anything. To be sure, a large part of this caution rests in light of Abzû’s incredibly short run-time. Spanning little over two hours, you’re going to want to wrestle each and every lick of joy out of this one yourself. Quality has its price, it seems.
Upwards of three years ago, Giant Squid Studios decided that they would channel all the talent and creative power they had into one condensed experience. Today, Abzû is just that. Across the span of two hours, it packs enough artistic punch and visual merit to stuff a game four times as long. While it most likely won’t hold your attention for long, Abzû is a remarkable novelty amid a sea of video games that all try to be alike. If you’re in the market for something quick, something different, Abzû will prove one incredible distraction.
Worlds Unfathomable, Stories Untold
A brief, but excellent stint through ocean blues