Some games ask deep and meaningful questions about their players. Questions like “How much control do players have?”, and “Is the violence we express in games merely a symptom of our own, inherently cruel human condition?” Abzu shames all of these petty inquiries. Instead, it asks a truly monumental question of us as players. “What if we played Journey… but underwater?!”
Abzu (Switch, PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)
Released Aug 2016 | Developed: Giant Squid Studios | Published: 505 Games
If you think back, you might remember Journey. It was a 2012 game developed by thatgamecompany and Santa Monica in which you played a mostly-featureless figure clad in a flowing robe making their lonely way through vast deserts from which protruded the ruined and decaying remnants of a long-dead civilisation. It gained critical acclaim for an excellent soundtrack composed by Austin Wintory, the gorgeous visuals, and its wordlessly told story conveyed to the player through hieroglyphs left by those who came before and other environmental cues.
It certainly seems that Giant Squid Studios remembered Journey, because Abzu is a game in which you play a mostly-featureless figure who makes their lonely way through the ruins of a long-dead civilisation, featuring a soundtrack composed by Austin Wintory, gorgeous visuals, and a wordlessly told story conveyed to the player through hieroglyphs left by those who came before and other environmental cues. Only this time, it’s under the sea!
That might sound facetious, but I don’t mean it too harshly; in fact, Journey is an inspiration the developers seem content to admit to. Matt Nava, the creator and director of Abzu previously worked as an art director for Journey itself, and of course the games share a composer. Whereas Journey drew from Arabic and Tibetan cultures, Abzu draws from a rather more esoteric and (dare I say) interesting place. Definite links to Sumerian mythology can be found in its world, and even the name of the game is connected to a deity of fresh water in both Sumerian and Akkadian religion which merges with the sea god Tiamat to form life.
Fittingly, the plot of Abzu revolves around bringing life to a vast and endless ocean. The player controls a diver who sinks beneath the surface to find an ocean teeming with aquatic life, and the ruins of a civilization which once lived there. There’s no narrative reason given to progress; you simply begin exploring because that is all there is to do. As you descend for that first time you find yourself in a luscious garden of rippling seaweed, as tiny schools of fish dart about. It’s not a huge area, but it introduces you to pretty much all of what Abzu has on offer for its players.
What Abzu does offer in terms of gameplay can be summed up reasonably quickly. Scattered about each stage are bubbling pools; interacting with them causes a flare of light and new species of marine life burst forth into the world. This is the most tangible form of interaction with the world Abzu’s protagonist has, though I will admit it’s satisfying and more than a little bit heartwarming to know you’ve helped bring a little more life to the ocean. Shark-headed monoliths can be sat upon and the player can begin to meditate, which lets you flip between the fish you’ve brought into that area and observe them going about their lives. Finally, hidden nautilus shells are a collectible for completionists to hoover up.
Some places have tiny adorable robots that are lying around which the protagonist can reawaken. These are necessary to progress at points as they can clear overgrown paths and open up certain doorways to ruins. They’re also simply charming, bouncing and dancing as they glide along beside you. And, well, that’s more or less it. Player interaction is extremely limited in Abzu; it’s a step up from a walking simulator for certain, but you would be very charitable to consider it any more than a particularly nice interactive narrative. You can swim and use a button to kick on for burst of speed, but other than that there’s one button to interact with everything, and one more whose sole purpose is the grab hold of the nearest big fish and let it carry you along (I’ve made that sound very little, when in actuality it is obviously really cool). Sometimes you might flick a switch to progress but there’s nothing that can even remotely be called a puzzle.
There’s also no challenge at all in Abzu: it’s a straight shot from start to finish, and one that can be concluded in just a couple short hours. For more diehard aficionados of games and gameplay, Abzu runs the risk of being a disappointment. Even though there’s no actual threat, it does do a surprisingly good job of creating a sense of tension at moments through careful use of framing, colour, and sound. It’s an art game, and it seems content to be so; while it offers nothing to those in search of a game which pushes them to their limits and tests their skill, it instead stands as a calm and quiet experience, a rare opportunity for serenity in an industry so enamoured with violence and action.
Some years ago I reviewed a game called Submerged. It made itself a reputation of sorts on the basis that it was a combat-free experience; like Abzu it was a little more than just a simple walking sim, but it was let down by the fact it felt so obviously limited by budget, which impacted the experience. Abzu, on the other hand, feels far more like what Submerged wanted to be: polished, smartly-written, and tightly constructed. I grumbled about Submerged being challenge-free back when I reviewed it, but perhaps my tastes have changed over time, or perhaps Abzu merely achieves its goal better than Submerged.
I’ve mentioned Austin Wintory’s name and work a few times now so I suppose I ought to talk a little about what he brings to Abzu. At the core of the soundtrack is a harp; what better instrument to convey the shimmering waves and shifting currents of Abzu’s sunken world, and so it introduces the soundtrack on To Know, Water. A choir and symphony orchestra accompany and enfold the harpist, ebbing and flowing to a sedate rhythm. The skipping, bouncing joy contained in the strings and chimes of Delphinus Delphis recalls both the skimming sand sections of Journey and even the more whimsical moments of another of Wintory’s works I’ve reviewed, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. The soundtrack is one which I find difficult to review in isolation; it’s gorgeous, no doubt about it, but it’s one which begs to be experienced alongside playing the game.
Abzu, then. It’s definitely a game I can recommend, though I think perhaps I wasn’t expecting to. I think I’m always a little wary when it comes to interactive narrative games, perhaps because getting that balance of gameplay right seems to be a struggle for many of them. Abzu is by no means perfect, especially not in terms of gameplay, but if you can allow yourself to sit back and be content to explore a world for a few brief hours, then Abzu has something to offer.
4/7 – GOOD. Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.