After offering memorable and spectacular experiences with the likes of Flower and Journey, art director Matt Nava decided to leave That Game Company and build a new development studio from the ground up. Giant Squid, as it came to be known, announced ABZU as their first game back in 2014. However, at first glance, the underwater adventure seemed a bit too familiar.
Now that we’ve had time to dive in (puns!), does ABZU have what it takes to shake the identity crisis?
ABZU is perhaps one of the most relaxing gaming experiences I’ve ever had. There’s no voice acting or pulpy narrative to digest, no dragons to slay, no bad guys to shoot, and no statistical micromanagement to obsess over. It’s just you and your little swimmer person exploring a variety of underwater environments, witnessing the goings on of the life aquatic, for the better part of three hours.
There isn’t much “game” to ABZU, and that’s fine. For the most part you’ll explore a walled off section of the ocean, spending time viewing the sea life, riding giant sharks or turtles, scouring for collectibles, and meditating atop statues for a better look at what else resides under the surface.
There are certain moments that require you to locate switches, or unearth robotic companions that open the way forward, but most of my time was spent happily exploring the oceanic depths, locating hidden pools that added to the ever growing list of inhabitants, and losing myself in Austin Wintory’s serene composition that accompanied it.
The controls, while not exactly perfect, never hindered my overall enjoyment. It took a little getting used to, but in a game without death as a consequence, there’s plenty of time for you to get acclimated before pushing further. Movement is done using the left analog stick, with the right controlling the camera. As someone that’s used to dual analog controls, I did find myself accidentally pitching the camera during a few inopportune moments, but it was far from a constant annoyance.
The artistic styling is fantastic, filling the world with eye-popping colors and a great sense of depth. As you move from one area to the next, each has their own defining moments and standout environmental features that assist in separating the game in to specific chapters. What may begin as a seabed could eventually propel your swimmer through current-filled caverns and spit you out at the start of a long forgotten underwater city.
My itch to explore every inch of ABZU was strong throughout, and as I began to uncover its secret paintings that vaguely explained the game’s cryptic story, I wanted to dig even deeper. Yes, this sounds quite similar to Journey’s cave paintings, and it does little to lengthen the tether between the two. Like Journey before it, there’s clearly an underlying story to be told here. It’s not all candy and nuts, after all.
If anything, my main complaint is that I wish there was more depth to the goings on in ABZU. The atmosphere and overall feel of the game take a significant turn at times, and while I’m okay filling in the blanks myself, I don’t feel like I was given much to work with. Additional paintings to discover, or a few more breadcrumbs during the weirder moments, would be a much welcomed addition.
As someone who enjoys hunting down trophies as a way to spend a bit of extra time with my purchases, I’m also a little let down that ABZU is not only absent a platinum trophy, but there’s
abzulutely absolutely no way to track collectibles. Having to either use a walkthrough or just replay the game while hoping for the best, adds an element of frustration to an otherwise relaxing experience.
The untold story at hand though is pretty magical, with some incredible standout moments toward the end, but I did have a bit of trouble shaking That Game Company’s iconic Traveler from the back of my mind. However, even days after putting the controller down, I’m still thinking back to Giant Squid’s underwater adventure, much like I did with Journey back then.
It may suffer from a bit of an identity crisis, but ABZU certainly holds its own and is definitely worth experiencing if you’re a fan of Matt Nava’s earlier work.
*So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I spent a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if the game is worth your time and money.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a PS4 copy of ABZU that I purchased myself. While I’m sometimes given games to review, I pride myself on providing unbiased reviews to fellow consumers, along with constructive feedback to hard working developers and publishers. Whether or not I pay for the game is completely irrelevant.