It’s extremely hard to write about Abzu without talking about Journey. Let’s get that out of the way first and foremost. With the same artist and the same composer, it’s really difficult to avoid comparisons to 2013’s seminal title. Fortunately, the guys at Giant Squid Studios are cool with the comparisons and are happy to embrace them. In fact, I was told that “Journey and Abzu are drawn by different hands” during my time with the game, and it’s looking like Abzu is going to be another wonderful experience.
In short, Abzu is a game about a diver. Starting with their head just above the water, you hit R2 to plunge under the surface and start your adventure. The freedom of movement and sense of wonder is immediate when you submerge yourself, and although the environment is somewhat empty at first, it allows you to familiarise yourself with the controls quite quickly. Within a few minutes you’ll be riding on the backs of fish and rays that are twice your size, navigating your way through tight and claustrophobic tunnels with ease, and interacting with objects in the environment before you even know it. It’s a really intuitive start and encourages investigation and exploration, even in the early stages.
The art style is, much like Journey, minimal in places but with tremendous levels of detail when required. As you start to make your way through the environment, the ocean around you begins to fill with marine life. There’s a huge number of creatures that can fill the screen (up to 8,000 in some areas, I was told), and it’s no mean feat to achieve, especially when they are all individually animated and programmed. In addition to the aquatic wildlife, you will be able to pick up a few mechanized buddies throughout as well, who will be able to not only create openings for you in the world but also assist with some of the puzzles that will be included throughout the world. They are undeniably cute, and yet at the same time somewhat disposable, which you find out in quite a surprising encounter with one of nature’s greatest predators relatively early on.
The soundtrack for Abzu is, predictably, gorgeous as well. I only got to play for a short period of time, but Austin Wintory appears to be on form yet again with Abzu. Sweeping strings are a signature, and they’ve been used to a wonderful extent even in these early stages, conjuring up wonder, fear and excitement in equal measure when it’s required. Environmental sounds are equally as important, with subtle touches applied throughout the underwater playground that Abzu presents. If you’ve got a good pair of headphones, Abzu is the game you’re going to want to plug them into the controller for, it simply sounds wonderful.
The crew at Giant Squid have said that all of the pre-release content that’s been shown has deliberately strayed away from content from the back half of the game, indicating a much stronger narrative hook than Abzu initially lets on, but we’ll see what happens with that when it arrives. For all that I played, Abzu seems like it will be another emotional tour de force, with some added puzzles along the way.
Abzu is out on PS4 and PC on August 2nd