To the centre of the earth… The bottom of the sea…
When I previewed ABZU at E3, it was exactly the “Winding down” experience that I wanted it to be. The busiest 3 days of the year capped off by relaxing in an air conditioned meeting room with a relaxing game, diving around the ocean and listening to a gorgeous soundtrack… I was not, however prepared for what the full game would do to me.
Developer: Giant Squid
Publisher: 505 Games
Reviewed on: PS4 (Review code provided)
As described in my preview, ABZU is a game from the creative heart of Journey. Giant Squid studios have been formed by Matt Nava, the art director, and Austin Wintory, the composer of one of the finest soundtracks in gaming, to produce this fantastic pseudo-sequel to the heavily acclaimed PS3 title.
ABZU, then, has quite a bit to live up to. Fortunately, it does so with aplomb. To start with, the additional power afforded to the developers allows for a much busier environment. If Journey was all about finding yourself in the midst of isolation, ABZU is about overcoming the isolation in a literal sea of overwhelming size. The areas themselves are filled with aquatic wildlife, with the hustle and bustle of the undersea world drawing immediate comparisons to that of busy cities. The art style is unique in and of itself, with the cartoonish feel of the fish being complemented perfectly by the carefully crafted world all around you.
ABZU, much like Journey, doesn’t push you for a resolution to its (admittedly very simple) puzzles to get through the areas. It allows you to explore and interact in your own time, moving on when, and only when, you feel ready to. The object of the game is quite simply to move past the current area you’re in, and doing so without combat or dialogue is a refreshing change to most games. Interaction is fairly limited in the game, but that’s not to its detriment. You can ride along on some of the bigger animals, and in some spots you can find little unmanned submarines that swim alongside you and react to your Journey-esque chirping. In fact, that’s probably the biggest through-line to Journey. You press and hold Square to “charge up” an interaction, which will either cause fish to swim towards/away from you, or trigger a set few interactions in the environment. Hell, it’ll even allow you to meditate when you get to a shark-shaped statue in the world.
Yep, you read that right, you can meditate. If ever there were a game where the option to meditate is a welcome option, it’s ABZU. You can swim up to a statue, hit square and sit cross-legged on the top of it until you feel like you’re ready to move on. It’s a game that you can simply lose yourself in, and I frequently did. In fact, there were moments when I just sat in my chair, swimming in circles in the game, listening to Austin Wintory’s gorgeous soundtrack, and feeling more relaxed than I have in months. In fact, I’m going to get a little personal. Recently, I’ve not been in the best of places for a number of reasons. I’ve documented my struggles with depression and anxiety on the site before, and they were starting to come back and kick my ass again. Then ABZU came along, and I have never resonated with a game more. I absolutely adored Journey for what it was, but I never got the emotional connection to it that so many seemed to. There were points during ABZU that I was wondering if it would hit those heights, but there was a moment where all of those doubts were eviscerated. The soundtrack started to swell as I was pirouetting with whales and leaping out of the water with a stream of fish behind me, and I genuinely had a smile on my face and a tear in my eye. This game transcended simply being “A video game” for me, and legitimately strayed into the realms of therapy. I have since spent a number of hours just sitting and continuing to lose myself in areas that I know aren’t necessarily the most complex of places, but I’m more than happy to soak it all in. The soundtrack is a huge part of this, of course, but combined with the sounds of the ocean and the sheer effortless motion that is commonplace with ABZU, it’s an incredible experience.
Moving away from my personal epiphanies, the technical elements of the game are pretty spot-on as well. The most notable problem is that the loading times are quite long, but they in no way detract from the experience. Graphically, there are only a few frame rate dips throughout, coming in particularly busy scenes with hundreds (if not thousands) of fish on screen. There were points where I purposely tried to make it chug and succeeded, but these moments are very few and far between, and in the grand scheme of things they don’t really matter at all. As mentioned, the audio design is impeccable, with the soundtrack ebbing and flowing in all the right places, and interweaving with the visuals in a perfect way. Journey was all about those moments, and whilst there are obvious parallels to certain scenes, ABZU undoubtedly stands on its own two feet with some simply jaw dropping sequences.
ABZU, to put it bluntly, is a bit special. A stunning example of game design, allowing you to dictate your own pace through an ocean that gets more complex in both design and feel as you descend, with some moments that, in my opinion, surpass some of Journey’s standout points. A beautifully simple game in terms of mechanics, ABZU’s strength lies in its world and the emotional resonance it has with its player. If you suffer from anxiety or depression, this game should be made available on the NHS. It is, quite simply, wonderful.