In a world that keeps asking, “Can video games be art?” there are a handful of titles that players can point to in affirmation. We can add Abzû to this list. But is a stunning atmosphere enough to make this underwater adventure worth playing?
Since Abzû’s reveal in 2014 players and critics alike have compared the beautiful ocean expedition to 2012's critically-acclaimed Journey for the PlayStation 4. There’s a good reason for this. Many of the talented folks who worked for developer That Game Company have come together to create Giant Squid Studios, the team behind Abzû. While Journey cemented itself in gaming history with it’s awe-inspiring visuals, haunting score, and multiplayer twist, Abzû seems like a small step backwards in all regards. Though that doesn’t mean it’s not a game worth experiencing.
Abzû is easily one of the most visually stunning games of the past decade. The grandeur of the sea has never been more prevalent and astounding. While not every section of the game is fully explorable, the main areas give players plenty of room to poke around and experience all the watery world has to offer. Up close and from a distance the inhabitants and the settings look wonderful, with just enough of an artistic tweak to the realistic models to keep players in awe. Ironically one of my favorite sights was a sky, which can be glimpsed in many stages by finding a route to the surface.
It’s imperative that players come back once they have finished the game to snoop around and truly take in all the scenery.
Journey, the similar title I mentioned in the introduction, is currently the only video game to ever receive a grammy nomination for “Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media” (or any other category for that matter). Though it was composer Austin Wintory who was actually nominated. Wintory returns for Abzû, lending his incredible composing talent to the underwater realm. As usual, he knocks it out of the park. From the sunny and lighthearted opening to the foreboding and murky end, Wintory knows how to put the right emotions into an environment with just a few notes. Come for the adventure, stay for the soothing music.
Upon finding certain shark statues players can sit and enter a “meditation” mode. This simply involves observing all the local flora and fauna as they swim around the different undersea areas. It is easily the most relaxing aspect of the title as a whole. Being able to sit undisturbed and take in the environment is a wonderful touch that adds to the games overall esthetic.
Not only can players watch the creatures of sea, they can also learn a bit about them. Pressing left while meditating will switch your view from fish to fish, displaying their names in the lower left hand corner and occasionally even showing the struggle that is the underwater food chain. It’s a nice touch that the designers of the game went to the trouble of only including real fish, as well as a slew of other underwater beasts that I won’t spoil for you.
Much like Journey, the story of Abzû is very ambiguous as it opens. How did you come to be? Why are you in the ocean? Where are you heading? All questions that are slowly answered throughout the games short campaign. The best (or worst) part of Abzû’s story telling is that it’s very subtle. Players will want to study wall murals, broken down status, and every corner of the games differing stages for more hints as to how and why the main character came to exist.
While the vast a majority of games released nowadays feature three dimensional environments and protagonists, it’s not often that players will find themselves in control of a character that can move in all directions. This usually only applies to games that feature flying and swimming. As Abzû is set almost solely underwater it’s a control scheme that players must deal with for the entirely of the game.
Swimming can be achieved by simply holding the R2 trigger, but it’s a little too easy to get turned around or head in the wrong direction when one is trying to get back behind the main character. Quite a few times I found myself floundering as I tried hopelessly to adjust my camera and myself just so. It’s honestly a hard system to implement as a designer and I’m sure a lot of work went into making it as smooth as possible. It usually works, but when it doesn’t it can be pretty aggravating.
Players can also latch on to nearby sea creatures, such as sharks, whales, and sea turtles, and ride them about. The animals are a bit harder to control, so it’s usually best to just hang on and steer them in the general direction you’d like to advance towards.
Abzû can feel more like an interactive movie than a game at times. When players aren’t exploring open settings the game tends to pushing them in the right direction by propelling them into jet streams and schools of fish that move the main character to the next stage of the game. It’s almost like an on-the-rails shooter, though there’s not shooting, just slight maneuvering and whale watching.
The puzzles involved to get to these sections are simple, but usually well hidden in the undersea life and the ruins of the past. It won’t take veteran players long to find the next route, and even if payers do get stumped momentarily they likely won’t mind, as it’s so enjoyable to just float around and explore.
Abzû is heartbreakingly short. As someone who excitedly played Flower and Journey with baited breath I knew it would come to an end sooner than expected, but even I was surprised how quickly I managed to clear it for the first time. I watched the credits roll after only around three hours of play. Luckily the game is made to be enjoyed on a more relaxing level, which means players can take their time as they explore the depth of the ocean or simply start all over again to take in the games wonderful environment and music all over again.
In the end Abzû feels like a title that is trying to capture the magic of its predecessors. And while it doesn’t quite have as much of an emotional impact, it certainly succeeds in many regards. Some players may find Abzû’s launch price ($20) hard to justify if they don’t see themselves revisiting the game after its initial play through, but those who think they might enjoy a few relaxing swims through the gorgeous undersea world will likely find enough content to keep themselves satisfied for a decent amount of time.
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