Abzû generates a lot of the same sense of wonder as its predecessor Journey, but it trades the desert sands for underwater exploration. This PlayStation 4 and Windows game is a beautiful stylized simulation of life under the ocean, with non-realistic, breathtaking art. I enjoyed the experience, but it seemed a bit too much like Journey in the way it unfolded.
The game is a fine first experience from Giant Squid Studios, founded by Journey artist Matt Nava. The music comes from Austin Wintory, the composer of the music for Journey and a number of other hit games. Giant Squid Studios formed after Nava left Thatgamecompany, whose title Journey debuted in 2012. Giant Squid’s first game is clearly intended for fans who wanted something more. That’s a good thing in a lot of ways as Journey was one of the best PlayStation games of all time. But I also wish that Abzû went further. If it had the right story, it could have been a contender for game of the year.
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The name Abzû comes from the ancient Mesopotamian words “ab,” for ocean, and “zu,” to know. It can be interpreted as “ocean of wisdom.” There’s a mystery about the game. As in Journey, the main character of Abzû is an unknown person, and he or she doesn’t speak. The game mechanics are mainly about swimming through the undersea world, not interacting or communicating. For those who love Journey, then, Giant Squid has offered a very familiar experience, like walking into an animated movie made by Hayao Miyazaki.
What you’ll like
The ocean simulation is outstanding
There have been many attempts to capture the wonders of the ocean, but Abzû really pulls it off. It’s amazing that such a beautiful console game can come from such a tiny indie studio. You’ll see a wide range of effects, such as sunshine coming through the waters above you and an almost frigid-like feeling in the darker waters below. The use of colors throughout the seascape is truly amazing.
Combined with the music, you’ll get a real sense of the ocean’s serenity and danger. There’s nothing like the rush you get when a school of dolphins swims past you, or when you’re surrounded by thousands of sardines and you’re looking at them as if you’re in the exact middle of a swirling twister. I felt a constant tug between wanting to find out the next step in the mystery and staying behind to linger among the lush sea life.
The controls work reasonably well even though the 3D maneuvering through the ocean can feel a bit like a flight simulator sometimes.
You can use simple controls to dive, speed up, and maneuver. There are places to meditate, where you can just look at the variety of the fish. If you find certain objects in the ocean, you can unlock more varieties. And you can hitch a ride on big fish, turtles, dolphins, and whales. You can jump into the air like a dolphin soaring out of the water.
A few times, I felt a little disoriented as swimming around in 3D is not an easy thing to do. But the game has visual aids, such as lines that serve as tracers, which tell you the direction that you are moving. Those tracers become extended the faster you swim, and they are a nice visual effect that adds 3D perspective even if you’re swimming into nothing but blue water. Occasionally, you’ll wonder which way is up and which way is down, and then you’ll realize that it doesn’t really matter because you’re not going to fall down in the ocean.
There’s variety in the ocean
You can swim into jetstream currents and zoom at high speeds past the coral reefs. Some of the sections of the ocean are like open worlds, where you can swim around with huge schools of fish. One of the great accomplishments of Abzû’s design is that it can bring together so many living creatures into a single scene. Not only do you see a lot of life, you also see an endless number of species. If you sit and meditate, you can learn the identity of each type of fish just by looking at them. In that way, Abzû can be educational for young players.
In the second half of the game, the story kicks in and you can swim with more of a purpose. Some ocean simulators make the mistake of being too realistic, with too many boring moments. But Abzû’s art style allows for outrageous colors among the coral beds, magnificent underwater structures, and some very interesting cutscenes where you are just along for the ride. That gives you enough things to do besides staring at the blue water. For the most part, even without much interactivity, you won’t be bored stiff playing Abzû. The ocean is teeming with life, in contrast to Journey’s desert.
The music adds emotion
It’s hard to believe that music can convey so much emotion. But it comes to the foreground as there is no dialogue of any kind throughout the experience. The music of Abzû conveys curiosity, sadness, fear, and grandeur. Wintory really delivers a musical score that stirs a lot of feelings, from melancholy moments of loneliness to sounds that convey the vibrancy of undersea life.
The price is right
The price is just $20, so you won’t have to fret about paying too much for a game that lasts only a couple of hours. It’s not a game for everyone, but for those who didn’t get enough of Journey, then this is well worth that price. You’ll likely play it once to zoom through to the end of the story, and you’ll be able to revisit it and linger in the open world areas. So Abzû is replayable in that sense.
What you won’t like
The story isn’t moving
Journey came off as an emotional experience mainly because the story had a real arc to it, and there was a real message at its conclusion. The ending really made my head spin, and it came as a surprise. But with Abzû, the ending was a little more predictable. The message is a bit more like the storyline of Flower, which was also made by Thatgamecompany.
In that sense, the impact of the ending and the ultimate identity of the diver isn’t as fresh or original. I wish that the impact was there, and I feel like it could have been, but the game left me a little flat.
It’s a lonely experience
Journey had a fun multiplayer experience where you can play cooperatively with someone else online. But there’s no such feature in Abzû. You don’t get to know a full cast of characters as you do in other games. The best way to think of the fish and the little drones in the game is that they’re the companions of the diver. Still, that’s not the greatest substitute for full character development. The closest thing the diver has to a real relationship is with a great white shark, which would more naturally seem like it’s out to make a meal out of the diver.
The game is too short
Abzû lasts only a couple of hours. You can go back and play it again, but it’s not as satisfying a journey (excuse the pun). It could also have been more challenging. There’s the story of a diver, but you don’t get to know a bunch of people or places along the way.
Abzû is a nice experience that you can finish in just a single sitting. You can play it with young kids, who will be awestruck by the beauty of the ocean. If you want something pretty and soothing, then this is the perfect game for you.
The shortness of the game isn’t purely an outcome of not having enough content. There are a lot of different areas to explore within Abzû. Rather, it’s more like there isn’t a challenge that forces you to go back to one task over and over again. It has plenty to satisfy the explorer in you, but not the gamer.
Abzû is out now for the PlayStation 4 and the Windows PC via Steam. GamesBeat received a copy of the PS4 game from the publisher for the purposes of this review.