When first diving into Abzu all I knew is that I was a diver and the ocean was my playground. What I did not know was how breathtaking of an experience it would be. Abzu manages to take hold of the wonder that is the ocean presenting it in a way that is one of the most meditative game experiences out now. This is a game about exploration, intrigue, and wonder. Immediately apparent is just how gorgeous this game is, with an orchestral score to match it set the tone perfectly. Having little in the way of threats (none at all) I was free to explore at my heart’s content, while soaking in the serenity/mystery that is the ocean. Abzu might be a short game, finishing it just under three hours, but it left me breathless.
Abzu is most certainly akin to games like Journey or Flower. Giving the player no indicators of what they should be doing, or where they should be going. All one can do is swim. Now obviously not all one can do is swim, the diver isn’t perpetually stuck in one part of this vast ocean. Abzu creates just enough of a breadcrumb trail through the use of doors, caves, and oceanic life to get the player moving in the right direction. While there is an end in sight Abzu wants the player to play in these beautiful underwater playgrounds. The ecosystems of the ocean are on full display and taking your time is encouraged by the game. Meditating points can be found in each area just so you can watch the marine life. If this doesn’t say, relaxing, I don’t know what does.
As someone who both respects and fears the ocean, Abzu made me feel comfortable in my surroundings because it’s what they game is about. For most games, underwater areas can be a scary place. Seeing water in a game either means something bad is lurking or I’m about to do something tedious and the swimming controls will be bogus. Abzu flips the script entirely because all you can do is be in water (for the most part). It relishes in the ocean, and it makes sense in doing so, our world is mostly water! The game not only alleviated my fears of the ocean but I found myself having more fun than I’ve gotten from a game in a while. It made me feel like a kid again, discovering something for the first time. This is exactly what the game sets out to do, even the name has importance in this regard. Developer Giant Skid explained that Abzu when broken down means two different things, “ab,” meaning ocean, and “zu” meaning to know. This couldn’t fit more perfectly, because that’s all I wanted from the game.
As aforementioned the game does leave a breadcrumb trail for where to go, because a game without direction would be confusing. The narrative of Abzu is instead told through a series of things to be found and the environment itself. Simple puzzles start cropping up but nothing to complex. Coming upon ancient ruins of a long forgotten civilization it becomes apparent that a symbiosis had been formed between the beings like the diver, and the oceanic life. While that much can be gleaned the rest is left up to player interpretation. Moving through different ecosystems the larger story Giant Squid is trying to tell is the story of the ocean itself. This was the take away, the game wants you to see the ocean in all its beauty for what it is, not some alien thing, but something we should love and respect. If anything is scary about the ocean, it’s what humanity has done.
This is where the Diver plays the biggest role, because she comes with an ability that just might right the wrongs that exist in this beautiful ocean. Using a ping the player can scan things in the environment around them. When coming upon a new ecosystem there will always be sea life appropriate to that area. Peppered throughout each area are things to do. Pinging coral for instance, causes new sea life to spawn into the area, breathing even more life into the environment. The game also provides spots for meditation. At first I thought this was a little silly because I was enjoying swimming with marine life so much, but to be able to sit back and watch the marine life do its thing was just as blissful. It’s bliss because everything does what it’s supposed to, this might be the most detailed rendering of marine life in gaming to date. I actually lost track of time when I realized I had been watching an Orca for way to long. Abzu is full of secrets to be had for those who like to wander of the beaten path. I would highly recommend exploring as much as you can, being that there are some really fun secrets.
Swimming in games can be one of the most frustrating things. It is such a pain when you come up to water for the first time and think, “I wonder how the swim mechanics will work, hope they’re good.” Not to worry with Abzu, swimming has never felt better. The controls are simple and tight, making for an easy to digest experience. The diver’s physics are on point showing her to be a superb swimmer. Gliding through the water was effortless and fluid. Giving her just enough weight that I didn’t feel like I was floating. The only thing I really got hung up on was the camera. I was playing on console, so I’m wondering if I would have encountered the same problems on PC, but it did turn me around a few times. Especially when I was trying to take worthwhile screenshots (these are everywhere).
To reiterate a point that is blindingly obvious, Abzu is gorgeous. Swimming through a multitude of ecosystems each unique to the part of the ocean it is presenting is stunning. Being among the oceanic life, I felt like a guest in a world I’m not a part of, seeing things because I was allowed the privilege. The sheer number of things going on around you is amazing, being able to interact with the sea life is even more incredible. Having nothing threatening in the environment allowed me the freedom for exploration I so desired. There are so many breathtaking moments in this game, but I won’t spoil those here (I think the last area is still my favorite, such an unexpected treat). Besides being visually striking it has a score to match. Composer Austin Wintory sets the tone perfectly for play and intrigue, even nailing more haunting orchestral pieces for the darker tones of the game. All of this combines to present something truly wondrous.
To Sum Up
Abzu relishes in sharing this big blue world that we call home. It’s easy to forget that are world is mostly ocean, especially when you’re on land all the time (living in a major city like myself.) It manages to capture the magic that is the ocean perfectly, presenting things that most will never get to see. I’ve already played the game twice because there are certain moments of wonder that I just had to experience again. Abzu is about relaxing and taking it all in. It’s a game that wants you to play, have fun, and enjoy all the ocean has to offer.
Abzu is out now on PC | PS4