Ladies and gentlemen we have another Journey on our hands. This comes as no surprise as ABZU is the first game from developer Giant Squid which was founded by Flower and Journey art director Matt Nava. The influences are clear as the stylized swimming simulator and aquatic petting zoo has many similarities to its predecessors. With no dialogue it is up to the visuals, gameplay, atmosphere and music to once again inspire and feel connected to nature.
ABZU has mastered simplicity. Become engrossed in a wide and stunningly made environment that uses simple controls to execute smooth movement. Creating an underwater level or game can be difficult but Giant Squid pulls it off without a hitch. Movement is simple and seamless, fun even, which is a rarity for third person simulators. There is little gameplay beyond exploration but with the short length of the game this works well as it doesn’t get too overdone. ABZU embrasses freedom again with grace.
While the levels are mostly linear players are able to explore the environments and interact with the sea life around them. From underwater caverns, deep oceanic areas, coral reefs and flooded ruins the life to be found is unique and fascinating.
Focusing on the ocean as an environment is a common theme lately with games like Stranded Deep, Subnautica and SOMA. ABZU however takes these games best elements and goes that extra mile in a short span. With the name being derived from ancient Mesopotamian, ‘AB’ meaning ocean and ‘ZU’ to know, the intention is for players to venture through an ‘ocean of wisdom’ much like the religious concept of a primeval sea.
Adopting a documentary style ABZU allows for learning and education to slow the pace down. Staring around at the majesty of the sea, like an unlimited aquarium, creates a sense of wonder and a childlike curiosity. During my own playthrough I encountered many forms of undersea life I had never known about previously.
The story is only a small element of the game and can be completely missed if you are not paying close enough attention but for most ABZU is much more of an experience than a story, appreciating nature and the persistence of life.
ABZU is simply a symphony of sound and scene, delicate and deliberate. Composed by Austin Wintory, the same composer as Journey, would seem to be the obvious choice but the soundtrack is just short of being perfect. In such a lush and descriptive world under the sea the music feels muted, it doesn’t have the same power as it did in Journey. Back in Journey the soundtrack expressed the atmosphere of how to feel, this worked well here as there were very limited stimulus on screen and music had been implemented as a main component of telling the story in lieu of voice acting. Here the music comes last to the visuals which are stunning and overwhelming, the music also seems to be lower and less responsive to environment than in Journey. Austin Wintory’s soothing sound is the right choice for ABZU but overall it needed to have a heavier influence to really meet the mark and make ABZU truly memorable.
The art and animation is astonishing. With the Unreal Engine 4 showing off the true abilities of the PC and PS4 Giant Squid captures entire ecosystems in a realistic and astounding way. Entire schools of fish can encompass the screen and each one is perfectly rendered and animated. Being able to touch and swim with the ocean life here is amazing and so real that you almost forget to move onto the next area.
Although Journey’s ultimate destination was far more impactful than Abzu’s, the process of getting there was still extremely enjoyable and thought-provoking, something only Giant Squid can seem to do.
With technology growing as quickly as it has it is a wonder that through this technology we can actually become closer to nature. ABZU manages to reconnect an audience to the outside world and invoke a true interest and sense of empathy towards the creatures of earth. While most games attempt to remove us from reality and the physical world ABZU brings us back to our own soil. Walking away from this experience will change how you think of the ocean and our connection to the earth.
Developer: Giant Squid
Publisher: 505 Games
Platforms: PS4, Microsoft Windows