Abzu review

Game Info
Platform Win, PS4
Publisher 505 Games
Developer Giant Squid
Release Date Aug 2, 2016

Thanks to creations like Abzu, it's getting harder to write game reviews (and not just because I have to frequently check the spelling of the title).

In the last 10 years, the vocabulary we use when we talk about games has had to expand exponentially, creating new semantic nooks and crannies for titles that are less traditional game and more experiences or narratives.

Games have had to evolve too, as they became more experimental, constantly playing with which mechanics support storytelling and aesthetic beauty, and which just get in the way. Abzu developer Giant Squid is belligerent about the latter, never letting mechanics impede the joy of underwater exploration, and, if you'll pardon the pun, it may have gone a bit off the deep end.

Abzu has been frequently described as "Journey but underwater." That's an easy comparison, convenient to the point of being trite, but it's a useful jumping-off point — or diving-off point?

In Abzu, you are an unspeaking protagonist who only interacts with the world via sonic pings. Story isn't explicitly conveyed, but rather alluded to in the environment. Also like Journey, Abzu can be completed in a couple of hours. The game's pedigree makes the comparison even more sound. Its creative director is Matt Nava, Journey's art director. The games also share a composer, Austin Wintory.

just experiencing this world is enough to recommend Abzu

There are, however, plenty of important divergences. The world of Journey was so solitary that the occasional presence of a second player felt like an oasis. Abzu, however, is literally teeming with life. Manta rays glide lazily past the player; massive schools of fish swim in dizzying cyclones; dolphins play and flit circles around the solitary diver. There's not a square foot of this ocean that doesn't pulse with beautiful, colorful life. It's the main draw of the game, and frankly, just experiencing this world is enough to recommend Abzu.

(Did I mention you can grab a dolphin's fin and ride it? Because you totally can.)

The highlights of Abzu are several sequences where the diver is scooped up by a rushing current and sent careening through the ocean. The combination of Wintory's soaring yet melancholically whimsical score and the lavishly colored groups of fish, dolphins and whales that swim by your side make for a thrilling spectacle that would seem at home in a Miyazaki film.

Abzu screenshot

No matter how visually or symphonically rich these sequences may be, they're robbed of a bit of intensity by the fact that they ask for little input from the player. Journey was never hard, per se, but it required a bit of proficiency to keep the action moving. The threat of making a mistake provided an intensity and, by extension, emotional investment that Abzu never quite reaches.

Even when you're exploring freely, there's little going on mechanically. You'll swim through nearly the whole game, only stopping on land for a few brief moments. You'll find small robots you can use to open doors. There are mines that can be easily avoided, and only slow you down a bit if you fail to do so. There are a couple of switches to flip, though calling them puzzles would be a profound overstatement.

Speaking from a purely mechanical perspective, Abzu is profoundly unengaging. As I've said, the astounding presentation fills much of that gap, but not completely.

It's not buoyed much by the narrative, which is so abstract I've played the thing twice and still have only the vaguest idea of who the diver is or what she is doing. There are hieroglyphs throughout the ocean that should fill in the blanks, but I'll have to rely on players smarter than me to fully explain their meaning.

Your character does have a surprisingly affecting relationship with a great white shark, but it's not nearly enough to emotionally ground the game. Abzu asks so little of the player mechanically that it feels like we are more witness than participant.

Speaking from a purely mechanical perspective, Abzu is profoundly unengaging
Abzu screenshot

If we have a counterpart to "background music" in games, it is Abzu. It invites you to let your mind wander and be swept away by its aesthetics while making precious few demands of your conscious mind. This is, if you will, a background game, and a supremely chill one to boot.

Abzu literally lets you press a button to meditate in specific locations, which translates to just watching fish swim around and occasionally eat one another. It's profoundly relaxing, but does little to make the player feel more connected to the game as a whole.

Wrap Up:

Abzu is gorgeous and calming but a little shallow

Exploring and playing in Abzu's oceans is a gorgeous, soothing experience that's easy to recommend. We have precious few games that strive for placidity and even fewer that reach it as handily as Giant Squid has here. But for all its aesthetic wonder, Abzu's threadbare mechanics feel like they're keeping the player at arm's length. For a game that's all about plumbing the depths, it's just a little shallow.

Abzu was reviewed using an early PlayStation 4 code provided by 505 Games. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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