Discover secrets serene and sinister in a big, beautiful ocean.
PC Release: August 2, 2016
By Ian Coppock
Every so often, geeks everywhere need a game that doesn’t necessitate higher brain functions. Many turn to the cavalcade of chaos that is multiplayer games, but others still require something a little less loud. Fortunately, there are a select handful of games out there that, while not overtly difficult, can still leave everyone in awe of something simpler, yet no less impacting. Abzu is the latest game that, while bereft of an intricate plot and incredible character development, is not shallower for it.
Abzu (the ancient Sumerian word for “deep ocean”) is a serene underwater adventure game from the art director of Journey, a PlayStation-exclusive game whose narrative is legendary in that gaming community. Fortunately, Abzu is a PC game, one that seeks to embody certain artistic motifs of Journey while also establishing an identity of its very own. The game is set in the ocean, and follows a man in a gold-and-black diving suit as he traverses the depths in search of… something.
Abzu is set up as a sequence of large oceanic areas, and each one contains its own assortment of geographic features and underwater wildlife. Players are to explore each area at their leisure, whether to search for hidden seashells or gaze in awe at the huge schools of fish. There’s a lot more to the game than that, but Abzu‘s first foothold in the mind of the gamer is its beauty, and by God does it assert itself.
Abzu does not shy away from building itself up on spectacle. It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful games released this year, perhaps even the last few years. The game’s aesthetic is a blend of bright colors and just a touch of cel shading, resulting in one of the most vibrant game worlds since at least Firewatch. At no point does the game feel monochromatic, even in the more morose areas of the sea. Even the most hotheaded, objective-driven gamers will give pause at Abzu‘s sheer beauty.
Of course, there’s a lot more that goes into Abzu‘s art than color. Each area of the ocean is overloaded with fish and other underwater wildlife. Thousands of fish populate each area, swimming in huge currents and schools all over each map. As can be seen in the screenshot up top, Abzu saturates its environments with animals. These thousands of fish are further divvied up into dozens, if not hundreds, of different species. The sheer amount of biodiversity in Abzu is staggering, and if the point hasn’t been hammered home by now, the game’s initial reaction is one of overwhelming awe.
Abzu‘s visuals are complemented by strong environmental sound design. Every animal is given an arsenal of sounds to whistle, growl or flurry at the player with. Each area in Abzu is replete with a chorus of wildlife, from the chirping of dolphins to the sudden whoosh of a big fish swimming by. It’s an array of sounds that works together well, especially when given the foundation of gentle waves or strong underwater currents. Sound design is key to creating an immersive environment, and in Abzu‘s case, the sound and visual design is almost perfectly synchronized.
The final layer atop the sound design is one of the best video game soundtracks in months, if not years. Created by inveterate video game composer Austin Wintory, the soundtrack is a bombastic orchestral whirlwind. Abzu‘s music alternates between slower, string-driven melodies for exploring wide areas, and faster, more excited music for riding currents and interacting with imposing creatures. The soundtrack was composed with a full orchestra and, though perhaps a tad too similar to that found in Planet Earth, is one of the best video game soundtracks in recent memory.
Although the spectacle in Abzu is very much part of the substance, the game is not without a subtle narrative to accompany each stage of the oceanic journey. As far as can be discerned, the diver is equipped with the ability to restore life to devastated areas of the sea. Players spend most of Abzu journeying through the ocean to these lifeless regions, and using a blue energy ball to light the place up and reintroduce wildlife to the area. Most maps in Abzu are already plenty populated with fish, but it’s through these areas players will go to reach the more desolate zones. Hieroglyphics left behind by some ancient civilization hint at an ancient calamity befalling the ocean, and the player’s role in reversing it. This premise is not novel by any means, but that doesn’t make it uninteresting.
Abzu features no dialogue, spoken or written. Players are left to infer some pretty substantial chunks of the story from either the writing on the wall (no pun intended) or a few key events that happen throughout the game. Most of these are clustered into the game’s last third or so, as the first 66% busies itself with wowing players visually. So while the narrative is nothing bad, it does feel a bit stretched in some areas and rushed in others. There’s one part concerning a submerged spacecraft that felt entirely disjointed from where the rest of the story was going, but it quickly picks itself back up and gets on track.
Although Abzu‘s narrative is a bit too subtle in places, it doesn’t detract from the game’s overall charm. Between the busy, well-constructed environments and the enthralling sense of wonder presented by the visuals, even the most story-driven gamers will find something amazing in Abzu. Indeed, a stronger or spoken plot may have detracted from the game’s focus on its living, breathing environments, so the lack of dialogue is not necessarily bad.
What is a little on the nose about this game is that it practically requires a controller. For reasons unfathomable, the design team didn’t take the time to create a comprehensive control scheme for PC players, instead putting up a notice that a controller is “strongly recommended” (read: necessary) to play the game. For a lot of PC players and console defectors out there, the gamepad shouldn’t be an issue, but purists or gamers simply uninterested in using a controller might have some frustration with Abzu- not so much that they should give up on the game, but some frustration nonetheless.
As for the gameplay itself, it’s pretty simple. The diver swims, the diver dives. The diver gathers seashells, the diver looks at fish. Fish are love, fish are life. In most areas, the diver can sit on a rock and ponder the meaning of existence, and in so doing, the camera will pan out and hone in on fish. Players can watch fish remotely and switch to other animals with the press of a button. Its staying power usually depends on the animal being surveyed (a humpback whale is much more interesting to watch than a flounder). The animals usually engage in a small routine that can be observed in just a few minutes, but considering the sheer number of fish, there’s no way fish-watching enthusiasts will run out of something to do.
This gameplay may seem simplistic at the outset, but Abzu‘s expansive ocean environments leave a lot to be explored. Players who enjoy uncovering every nook and cranny of a game’s world will find Abzu to be an absolute delight. There are a few fixed sequences allowing for more fast-paced fun, like swimming with orcas in an undercurrent. None of it sacrifices Abzu‘s spectacle.
Abzu is not a complicated game to understand. Some may call it simplistic, but in simplicity there is tranquility. The point of Abzu is not to get wound up in a deep story or brave visceral combat, but simply to explore. Abzu seeks to emulate the sense of childlike wonder everyone had when first learning about the natural world. It provides a giant ocean full of wonders to explore, one that any gamer will appreciate. Whether players are weary of violent shooters or just looking for something refreshing and relaxing, Abzu is the solution. It’s one of the most mesmerizing video games ever made.
You can buy Abzu here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.