Originally Written on August 9, 2016
After the huge success of 2012’s Journey, many members of thatgamecompany left the studio to pursue their own endeavors. While some of those released to little fanfare and others are still in production, Abzu, from the mind of Journey art director Matt Nava, is the first to make a big splash. The influence from Journey is clear, but comparing any game to one of the previous generation’s best is going to put it on an unfair pedestal. That’s why I want to judge Abzu on its own merits and promise to not mention Journey again until my conclusion.
Abzu puts you in the shoes (flippers) of a scuba diver exploring a vast ocean. While at first your purpose in this world is somewhat unclear, the nature of what you are doing and the world you are in is slowly revealed overtime. Early on mechanical structures seem out of place and ominous while hieroglyphic like paintings suggest a reverence for the creatures below. Both infer human involvement with the undersea world, but with vastly different connotations. The story becomes much less obtuse overtime as you travel deeper into this world and discover the truths of it. Abzu presents an inferred message that isn’t overly preachy and delivers a story that is brief but compelling.
But where Abzu really shines is as a visual and audio experience. Nava’s talents are on full display here as the environments in Abzu are absolutely breathtaking. Each one is filled with life and a sense of grandeur that very few games can match. Whenever I entered into a new ecosystem I spent at least ten minutes exploring, looking at all the different sea creatures and hitching a ride to whichever one I could. Abzu is a game where you can grab onto the back of a manatee or the shell of a sea turtle and ride around with them, and if you don’t think that’s magical then I don’t know what’s wrong with you.
Abzu also features a soundtrack composed by the wonderful Austin Wintory. I believe that pound for pound this is the best soundtrack Wintory has composed. While some of his others have had stronger themes, almost every song on this one is evocative of the specific moment in the game where it plays. None of it needs to be listened to in the context of an underwater wonderland, but it fits that world all the same.
I intially hesitated to call Abzu meditative, but then the game went ahead and did it for me. There is actually a meditate mode where you can sit down and follow the paths of any of the fish in the area. Abzu is one of the most relaxing video game experiences I have had. I didn’t come out of it feeling overtly emotional, but I came out of it feeling refreshed. So many games are about action or have some gripping emotional tale to tell. Abzu is content with just being a fun, relaxing time.
That isn’t to say that Abzu doesn’t have its more grand moments. In between each of the major ecosystems are sections of the game where you get swept up in a current that takes you to the next major hub. These portions are fast, exiting, and feature some breathtaking moments. They also introduce a lot of sea life that you have yet to see but will almost certainly come across and be able to swim alongside in the next ecosystem. The predictable nature of the game’s pacing definitely starts to hurt it later on, but Abzu‘s ability to continually introduce new sea life and environments managed to keep it fresh for its short two hour duration.
Despite the vastness of the creatures on display, there were a few times when Abzu felt restricting. Being enclosed in a circular area full of fish is easy to get caught up in, but it loses some of its magic once you look out in the distance and just see endless emptiness blocked off by invisible walls. For a game about exploring the depths of the sea, Abzu is incredibly linear. Most of the time it does a good job of hiding this, but the few moments where the linearity shows through pulled me out of the experience.
What Abzu nails aside from the visual splendor is the controls. They aren’t the most precise controls in the world, but they give the character a good sense of floatiness that adds to the setting without being completely unmanageable. It feels like what you would want diving underwater to feel like; not perfect, but easy to handle. There is a real elegance to the animations that never broke when I decided to make a sudden movement.
That’s another thing about Abzu. Despite some of the problems I have with the game, it is technically flawless. While I didn’t always think that Matt Nava’s vision for this game was the greatest thing in the world, I also never thought that the game he put out was anything less than what he envisioned. Abzu has a level of technical polish that I can’t help but commend.
Abzu is not as good of a game as Journey was. It’s story did not hit emotional beats on the same level for me. And when it is imitating so much of what Journey did, it is hard to not compare the two and be somewhat disappointed in Abzu. But when removed from this context Abzu is a great game. It is a relaxing experience that anybody who enjoyed Journey or loves the wonders of the sea will find enjoyable. It might not be a game that is remembered four years from now the way Journey is today, but it was two hours well spent.
Final Score: 4 Stars