Review: Abzû

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Having a title with multiple possible translations, from ocean of wisdom to the literal name of the primeval sea, Abzû is the breathtaking new underwater narrative adventure from Matt Nava’s Giant Squid studio. Matt Nava’s name should sound familiar as he use to be the art director for Thatgamecompany on modern art-gaming classics Journey and Flower. It only takes a single screen grab or video clip to see that his artistic fingerprints are all over this beauty.

I know it’s a bit lazy and unoriginal to call AbzûJourney under the sea” but frankly that summarizes exactly what the game is to a T. You play as the nameless Diver, dropped into a vividly realized underwater landscape with no overt goal or direct narrative explicitly telling you what to do, where to go, or what has transpired. A primary guiding force is the looming presence of a Great White shark, at first aggressive and terrifying yet steadily revealing itself to have a deeper connection to the world and the Diver as it leads the way ahead.

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Without a word of text or line of spoken dialogue, the storyline is delivered through interactions, hieroglyphs, architecture, and other visual cues contained within the scenery. The developers clearly had a vision of ideas and themes for the narrative to embody, but from that general starting point the backstory–Who is the Diver? What is this world’s history? Why am I following this shark?–is left up to each player to interpret through his or her personal interactions and discoveries. I’ve interpreted what I imagine the story to be, but my interpretation probably won’t be the same as other players. There’s no single, definitive meaning or concrete sequence of events, so each player will take away something different. Obviously, to say anything too specific would spoil an experience that is best played blind and then discussed with others later to compare thoughts.

The game itself is set up as a linear room-to-room progression through a series of underwater zones. Each zone is essentially an interactive aquarium populated by a vast array of sea life, a dozen meditation statues throughout providing opportunities to perch the Diver and gaze longingly at the environments while manually cycling between different critters of the ocean. (Or you can just kick back and watch the scenery like a Zen aquarium.) As you swim along, there are broken down little sub drones to find and repair, at which point they will tag along and occasionally be used to break through barriers of coral. Along the way, hidden pools can be found and activated to spawn new types of sea creatures into the world. Parts of the world have also become shrouded in darkness, devoid of color and life. In a similar style to Okami, a main component of the game is reaching these areas and restoring them to their former glory.

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Swimming around as the Diver is such an intuitive, graceful, and serene experience. Using an Xbox controller, holding down the right trigger propels the Diver forward, the left stick steers, and taps of the A button kick for bursts of speed (three well-timed taps in succession trigger a powerful turbo boost). The locomotion can be a little tricky to get a handle on at first since it’s fairly easy to over-steer and end up swimming in circles or going this way when you meant to go that way, but everything should click and feel natural within a few minutes.

The limited number of things to interact with is mildly disappointing. Pressing the X button triggers a sonar ping, which is the primary method of activating or collecting objects. Environments later on require pinging the occasional switch or turning chain cranks to open locked doors, and that’s about as complex as things ever get. Sadly, there aren’t any elements of puzzle solving or platformer-like navigation. It’s all very guided and tranquil, without any form of death or failure. The most enjoyment, at least for me, comes from interacting with the sea life, whether it’s swimming along doing spins and barrel rolls with a pack of dolphins or holding the left trigger to grab onto the fin of a shark or orca for a piggyback ride. As the Diver alone or riding shotgun on another creature, swimming towards the surface at an accelerated rate allows you to leap out of the water, while tapping the B button lets you perform aerial flips and rolls. Fully recognizing the Diver as one of their own, other sea creatures will follow along and do synchronized dives and flips, which is always a wonderful sight to behold.

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I don’t know what’s more beautiful, the game’s graphics or the music. Abzû‘s deep sea world is bursting with vibrant aquatic life, from flowing kelps to schooling fish to feeding sharks to soaring rays. Every bright hue on the color spectrum lights up the screen, contrasted by the areas of darkness that become fully revitalized as you progress in the story. Austin Wintory’s masterpiece score harmonizes magnificently with the oceanic orchestra created by streaming bubbles, chirps, echoes, and other aquatic sound effects to further intoxicate the senses with notes of wonderment, playfulness, mystery, adventure, and discovery. Believe it or not, though, at times the sensory overload almost becomes too much, to the point where there’s so much on-screen activity it becomes easy to lose sight of where the Diver is amongst the clutter (gorgeous clutter though it may be).

Some players will probably lament the fact that the game’s only around two to three hours long, but that should not come as a surprise given the developer’s previous works. Even with quite a bit of exploration and just swimming around to take in the majestic oceanic beauty of the game world, my first playthrough took two and a half hours, which felt right-sized to me given the game’s approach to gameplay and art as narrative. Once the game’s over, menu options allow for manual selection of chapters and meditation statues, should you want or need to return to a specific area. Additionally, a second playthrough will likely be required to find all of the spawn pools, secret sea shell collectibles, meditation statues, and special creature interactions that are linked to hidden achievements, so there is definitely meaningful replay value to see and do everything. I needed over six hours to find everything for 100% completion, and because the game’s such a joy to play, look at, and listen to, I continue to be drawn back just to swim around and soak my senses in the art and soundtrack even though there is nothing specific left to accomplish.

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From the perspective of a reviewer (well at least this reviewer), critiquing a game like Abzû is a daunting task, because its mechanical simplicity, multiple-interpretation narrative, and audiovisual splendor is a challenge to faithfully encapsulate in words, especially without giving too much away. Hopefully what I’ve written here does this masterwork of videogame art justice. But the only way to truly appreciate what Abzû brings to the medium is to dive in and play it for yourself.

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Pros:
+ Evocative, open-to-interpretation visual narrative
+ A masterpiece of videogame art design and animation
+ Austin Wintory’s splendid score combined with the natural orchestra of the ocean
+ Swimming controls are so fluid and graceful

Cons:
– Limited interactivity in terms of puzzles, level advancement
– Dense sea life sometimes can be difficult to see through

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available on PS4
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Giant Squid
Release Date: 8/2/2016
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: Steam or PlayStation Store for $19.99. Currently there is a 20% launch discount for the Steam PC version.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!