After a couple of critical hits with thatgamecompany in Flower and Journey, art director Matt Nava and others split off to form their own development company called Giant Squid Studios. Now their first game has been released, published by 505 Games, for the PS4 and PC. The game, titled Abzu (the name is said to derive from an ancient language, with ab meaning “ocean” and zu meaning “to know”, or the whole name meaning “ocean of wisdom”), unsurprisingly takes us on another abstract yet beautiful journey. This time instead of moving across fields or wandering the desert you play a mysterious diver who makes his way through various underwater environments. You’ll travel through forests of seaweed and sunken ancient temples, accompanied the whole way by a wide variety of sea life. Abzu is at its most basic a swimming simulator, and smooth controls help you fluidly navigate your way. Beyond that, things are more up to personal interpretation. We’re presented with what looks like an ancient civilization and possibly some extraterrestrial technology. But who these people were is never clearly answered. Nor do we find out why their civilization seemed to come to an end under the sea. But it the end, it really may not matter.
You see, Abzu is all about exploration and discovery, though what answers we find are left to our own interpretations. Clues as to who these people were are depicted in murals on the temple walls. We soon learn they held a special reverence for one particular creature of the deep. And while that connection never becomes completely clear, the journey from beginning to end (which will take most around three hours or so) is such a beautiful and mostly peaceful one that the answers may not matter. Rather, it’s the experience that is paramount, and it’s that experience that will remain with you after the credits roll. There is no combat to distract you from taking in the sights (the most threats come from electric mines, which stun and disorient you, but will not kill). The few puzzles present are of the “find and flick the switch” variety, meant to serve only as devices to open doors to allow us to proceed to the next area. There are some objects for us to interact with, and you can even meditate at a shark statue while observing the plethora of life around you. Abzu gives us plenty of species to observe and swim with. Sharks, dolphins, and giant whales all make an appearance, with some nice surprises late in the game (I won’t spoil them here, as they’re best discovered on your own).
Movement through the environment is the primary gameplay element in Abzu, and to that end things have been kept simple. On the PS4, where I played the game, R2 has you dive. Your left stick controls your direction, and you can use the right stick to look around. Pressing the “X” button will give you a boost in speed. L2 allows you to hitch a ride on various creatures, and the Square button is used for interactions. All of this is accomplished smoothly. You can either invert your swimming controls or change them to normal. For myself I found the inverted controls to work best, but others may benefit more by switching them. It may take a couple of minutes to get used to the controls, but once you do, swimming around is a joy. You can easily do loops and leap out of the water at the surface. Almost all of the game takes place underwater, though a couple of land based areas appear towards the game’s end.
The fluid movement helps move you through some stunning environments. While not photorealistic, the areas are still filled with color and detail. Fish swim realistically, and while nothing will try to eat you, you can observe predators taking their prey around you. Some areas have a stronger current and propel you along faster. In these areas, you can hit Square to interact with schools of fish, causing them to follow along. The paintings on the inside walls of the temples are beautiful to behold, and offer some clues as to who these people were that built these structures. There are some collectible shells to be found, and meditating at the shark statues allows you to observe and identify the life around you. The sea life is drawn to scale against your diver, so when swimming alongside a pod of blue whales you’ll feel awestruck at their immense size. As you get deeper into the sea, odder creatures enter the picture. I was delighted to see certain creatures make an appearance in the game’s latter sections, and credit is well deserved by the game’s creators to present us with such a diverse gameworld to explore.
Accompanying these colorful visuals is a fantastic musical score by composer Austin Wintory (Journey, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate). The music soars and ebbs at all the right moments. It hits the highs upon entering a new area. Haunting vocal arrangements mark our journey through ghostly temples and caverns. The music keeps tempo as we speed along with strong currents, and provides suitable suspense as we navigate the mines. It evokes the sense of wonder and discovery with each new sight that greet our eyes. This is another winning score by Wintory that will remain with you after you shut the game off. It offers a peace and serenity as we delve to uncover the mystery of the alien looking structures, and just adds to the overall experience in Abzu.
Abzu might not for some offer enough gameplay to make it worth their while, but for those who enjoy games like Journey will relish this new experience. By keeping things conflict free, Giant Squid Studios allows us to explore freely and without distraction. This is a beautiful journey through the depths, marked by colorful environments and undersea life and accompanied by a fantastic musical score. At three hours it’s an easy game to play in one sitting, and compelling enough that many may feel the need to go through again to see if there was anything they missed. Plus, a second playthrough may help some make more sense of the clues left behind by this mysterious civilization. At twenty bucks some may feel they won’t get there money’s worth out of the game. For them, I’d say wait for a price drop, but definitely play this at some point. For others, the beautiful and serene experience offered by Abzu is more than worth the money, just as Journey was. Abzu is well worth taking the plunge for. There is much beauty to be witnessed under the sea.
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