An Underwater Journey
I am a sucker for awe-inspiring environmental design. When I first played Journey on the PS4 a couple of years ago, I finally understood that video games can be so much more than fun little games; they can be pure art. By using gorgeous, colorful (or intentionally colorless) visuals in tandem with beautiful and tear-inducing music, games can evoke powerful emotions in us by creating a story and delivering it through showing, not telling. Abzu, created by Giant Squid Studios, which is comprised (unsurprisingly) of key developers of Journey, is another such instance of a game being pure art.
While Journey is a tale of one pilgrim’s adventure through a barren and harsh desert, Abzu is a tale of a human-shaped robot’s escapade through a seemingly endless ocean. The game starts me off just floating in the wide open ocean, with no explanation of who you are or what your purpose is; the only place to go is underwater. Once I dive in, I see the gorgeous, clear blue water in all of its glory and swim around with all of the small fish that inhabit it. Going to the floor of this area, I see a camera-drone-like robot stuck in the sand. Approaching it and doing some off-camera magic brings this cute little guy to life, who is ecstatic to see me. Using his ability to break through some overgrown coral, I am able to enter into an area filled to the brim with fish and seaweed and other colorful natural structures. Moving a little further through, the waters become darker, empty, and far less vibrant.
Next, I see a strange portal almost sitting on the floor of this dead area and decide to swim inside of it. Here I can see the spirit of the ocean itself, shaped in the form of a tree, and something is missing from it. Upon going to the core of this tree, I restore it’s missing part, something that I didn’t know I had with me until that moment. Upon exiting this portal back into the sea, the entire surrounding area starts growing over with new life of all shapes, sizes, and colors! Excited with my success, I move on seeing if there are new areas that need to be brought back to life with the help of my trusted robot drone buddy. Seeing a large opening to the main sea itself, I am ready to move on and my little buddy swims out excitedly before getting crushed out of nowhere by an enormous shark that stares me down and swims away. Why would this creature be fighting back when all I am trying to do is help?
Finally, underwater movement feels right
How’s that for an ominous opening? In all seriousness, I really don’t want to delve into the story too much because, you know, spoilers and what not. But also, Abzu is not a game that depends on its story to be good; it’s everything else about it that makes it amazing. Let’s start off with the controls, arguably one of the most important things in a game. When you go back and play 3D games like Banjo-Kazooie, Mario 64, Mario Sunshine, etc. they all suffer in their underwater portions. Not because of poor music, level design, or art, but because they are just so difficult to control. So many games have issues where you never feel in control of what you are doing and can get frustrating very quickly. Abzu’s developers must have spent an eternity on the controls, because finally, underwater movement feels right.
The movement is simple, easy, and fun. There are only a couple buttons to use, and they all have their defined and specific purpose. Sometimes, it can be a little difficult to control when you are grabbing onto a dolphin or whale or other miscellaneous fish and swimming with them, but they are much bigger than you are and will handle differently, as one would expect, so I really don’t think this is an issue. When you are playing a game like Abzu to relax, get lost in, and just soak up all of the environments, the controls need to be simple and responsive; thankfully, they are.
Abzu has some of the greatest visuals I have ever seen in my life
I’m not going to beat around the bush here with this one, Abzu has some of the greatest visuals I have ever seen in my life. While I appreciate a game that is absurdly detailed and realistic like Red Dead Redemption II, I just love so much when a game hits it out of the park with unique visuals that will always stand the test of time. Abzu’s gorgeous color palette, with so many vibrant colors and shades, just melted my mind. Seeing the light from above the surface break through and light up every individual fish and plant is something you have to see to believe.
As I mentioned earlier, when you restore the core to a dead ocean segment, the world that was muted and grey is overtaken by so much color and beauty. My jaw just hit the floor more times than I can count, and seeing a world change from emptiness to one of color and beauty made me feel absolutely wonderful inside. The visual direction is a true achievement in gaming, and it’s one that I hope many developers take lessons from.
The soundtrack… elevates Abzu to an unbelievable level.
Not only does Abzu have stellar visual direction, but the audio direction is spectacular as well. The sounds of the ocean moving, the dolphins doing their weird high-pitch clicking, and the musical chimes of your echolocation button all give you this unbelievable sense of immersion. On top of the natural sounds, the soundtrack by Austin Wintory (Flow, Journey, Assassins Creed: Syndicate) elevates Abzu to an unbelievable level. Honestly, it sounds like something straight out of a documentary like Blue Planet or Planet Earth, which is not an insult in the slightest. The orchestration ranges from quiet and mysterious to bombastic and overflowing with energy and movement. When teaming up these beautiful music pieces with what you are doing onscreen, everything that happens in-game is made that much better. If you do not have access to this game and will never be able to play it, at least got to Youtube or Spotify and listen to the soundtrack; you will not regret it.
I shouldn’t have been surprised after playing Journey and having the same thing happen there, but Abzu made me feel so many different emotions of joy, sadness, and curiosity simply by throwing me into an unexplained world and letting me discover. There is no text (other than button and control instructions), no dialogue, and no designated quests written in front of you. Yet, somehow, the game delivers a story and experience that I will never forget. Through its use of gorgeous and vibrant visuals, a beautifully orchestrated and varied soundtrack, intuitive and responsive controls, and simple, yet fantastic game design, Abzu delivers a 2 hour experience that will stick with you for many more after it is finished.
Yes, if you:
- Loved Journey, Flow, or other games of a similar genre
- Want to be fully immersed in gorgeous visuals and soundtracks
- Enjoy short, relaxing games with an emphasis on the overall experience
No, if you:
- Are looking longer game with an in-depth narrative, lore, and world building
- Want a game that will challenge you, not relax you
- Only play games of a gritty, violent nature
Abzu was released on PC, Xbox One, and PS4 on August 2, 2016 and on Nintendo Switch on November 29, 2018