When one looks back on 2016, it’s possible to see it as the start of everything that is now wrong with this dirty little circle of a planet. But look, it wasn’t all bad. Aside from surprise presidential wins and half of the UK voting for opening the equivalent of Mr Burns’ mystery box, that year also gave us calming sea animals and exploration on our home consoles.
Now on its way to Nintendo Switch, enter this rendition of meditate-em-up Abzu. Back in the promising, politically-stable days of 2016, Abzu was reviewed by Ben, who awarded it a mighty ten out of ten. Abzu fits into what seems like a spiritual trilogy, alongside Journey and Rime, of short, beautifully realised games that are more experiences with loosely suggested plots rather than concrete messages and objectives. Rime may not share creative staff as Abzu and Journey do, but it’s use of sound, a short duration and basic puzzles that are there to engage the player just enough, rather than challenge them, is very reminiscent of what you’ll find here.
The main pull of Abzu, then, is the environment and the way you navigate it. While you begin matters with your mysterious diver regaining consciousness on the surface of the ocean, it’s only when you dip below the waterline that the world reveals itself, as do the flowing movements you can perform that make navigation so hypnotic.
It’s probably possible to play Abzu completely ‘straight’; that is, going from beginning to end with no faffing or frivolous exploring. The game instead tempts you to lose yourself by floating around and making the most of the weightless dexterity of your nameless avatar. Looping, swishing and pirouetting don’t achieve anything, but you can and will do them simply because it gives the game a real feeling of freedom. Even though the environments are not huge, the verticality and additional movement afforded by the underwater setting make it feel like there’s much more to consider than there actually is.
The plot is loose, and you’ll expect similar if you’ve played the other two games I’ve mentioned earlier. It’s probably about not polluting the ocean, which feels like common sense but I suppose we need reminding every now and again. You’re told of this by way of murals, a (mostly) friendly shark and some sea-mines shaped like pyramids, but it’s up to you how much you engage with this or just enjoy floating around this tainted paradise.
One of the most delightful themes I found throughout the game was the denizens of this watery world. I won’t say what these are here, as much of the joy I had from Abzu arose as a result of bumping into my new sea-buddies unexpectedly. Sometimes, you’re able to grab a fin and go for a ride, or you can simply just watch them caper around, indifferent to the presence of you or several natural predators. The movement and interaction with the creatures of the deep progresses as the game does, changing from simply floating around on their own to becoming more integral to your adventure.
Even though the scourge of man occasionally appears with the threat of causing you harm, this is not a game where you’re ever in peril or can lose lives, in the sense of a traditional videogame. Even at its most risky, a section where you have to navigate the aforementioned proximity-mines, if you end up getting too close and triggering one you’re simply knocked back a few feet and then able to continue as before. You can be fairly certain when picking up Abzu you’re in a safe place; something to go for when you’re feeling fragile and not ready to be bombarded by other people or danger.
You may well also enjoy the musical score; put together by the same chap behind that famous Journey music (as in the game Journey, not Steve Perry), it’s rich, orchestral and ably handled by the Switch’s speakers, although if you’ve got headphones to hand then even better. What’s especially pronounced on Abzu’s newest console port, though, is the visuals. What seemed slightly reductive and bare on a larger screen feels instantly at home on a smaller screen. This seems counterintuitive when you consider that the game is supposed to represent the vastness of the ocean, but the feel of the cel-shaded visuals and simplistic creatures feels at home on Nintendo’s console, alongside other similar-looking titles. Some of this may just be as the smaller shapes hide some of the rougher edges, but regardless, it works.
There’s no issues with the jump from the powerful consoles to the Switch, and nor would there be any reason to expect any. While the game frequently renders enough fish to fill the seafood section of the menu at Wagamama’s, and these masses are one of its defining features, I never found the framerate dropping or experienced any performance issues, even in handheld mode.