Abzu Review – Under the Sea
Underwater gameplay sucks. This has been one of the longest truths in game design and players have all experienced it at some point. Underwater sections are usually tossed in a bigger game for the sake of variety to dedicate an entire level around water physics. Physics that are completely different from what players are used to and it;s more than enough to lead to frustration and thrown controllers. There are some exceptions to this rule, but then there’s Abzu, an entire game built around deep sea diving and enjoying the majesty of the ocean. When the game keeps to these strengths it is quite zen, otherwise it struggles a bit.
Matt Naka is the creative director of Abzu, the exact same person who gave us the beautiful and brilliant art direction of, Journey, and that influence shows. You are a faceless protagonist of no discernible gender or race getting ready to make an expedition to somewhere on a pseudo-spiritual journey. There is no dialogue and no real concrete story to speak of, just a lightly guided interactive odyssey through beautiful locations and the threadbare elements of a backstory told through environmental details like crumbling architecture and faded hieroglyphs. All of this exploration and whimsy is also accompanied by yet another gorgeously composed score by Austin Wintory, who also worked on Journey and The Banner Saga.
It is hard to divorce Abzu from Journey with those influences in mind, but there are several noticeable differences. Where Journey was a prolonged trek through a desert with an art direction leaning heavily on Middle Eastern and Indian influences, Abzu sticks to the depths of the ocean throughout the majority of its adventure and what little architecture is glimpsed is Babylonian influenced. Even the game’s name is a word lifted from that region’s creation myth, which means “deep water” or “to understand water” depending on the translation.
On the topic of water, the controls are a marvel. It took a small amount of getting used to, but one of Abzu’s greatest triumphs is making swimming feel just right on a controller. Simply moving around feels responsive but just sluggish enough to give the illusion of believable physical resistance. There’s a rhythm based kick you can do for a speed boost that makes you feel clever whenever it’s successfully pulled off. Also, while most games like to reorient the character so their stomach is always facing the ocean bed, Abzu instead allows the player to completely bank and even flip around and makes it feel natural. It brought back pleasant memories of when I too would do such fun tricks at a public pool and that is the highest praise I can give the designers at Giant Squid.
The game’s level design is where things get shaky. The very first areas of the game are basically large and open-ended miniature aquariums. You can swim around to find collectibles and hidden areas that will let you interact with various sea life. And sea life doesn’t always appear in the same location twice in a row thanks to some clever random generation, so don’t expect to always ride a giant sea turtle in the same area on every playthrough. There are even meditation statues where you can examine the entire location from a god’s eye view just to enjoy the scenery. But, usually, these mini-sandboxes hide some sort of key or special item or lever you have to hit in order to proceed to the next area, and when the game keeps these parts small, things work.
The problem is Abzu doesn’t stick to this relaxed layout. As the game progresses, there are several jetstream sequences where you’re caught up in a powerful current and can guide yourself through schools of fish and other environmental hoops. But the way these sections are paced is lopsided. One or two jet stream parts are fine, but the game has about five of them and most of them are thrown practically back to back near the game’s conclusion. As these parts continue, you aren’t given nearly as much freedom of movement, which just rubs salt in the wound. For a game that nails underwater movement so well, it seems oddly ashamed to let the player explore it completely.
It’s part of a bigger paradox where the game suffers when traditional gameplay gets awkwardly forced on it. The swimming controls and the quiet, subtle pull of the game’s atmosphere were more than enough to draw me in. But as Abzu continued, more and more “find the hidden lever” puzzles kept piling on, and more and more highly scripted hands-off sections kept popping up, dragging the pacing down. The biggest offender of this trend came in the big finale of the game. You can tell Giant Squid a significant amount of work into this game’s visuals (make no mistake this is the most gorgeous game currently running on Unreal Engine 4 to date), the absolute soaring majesty of the musical score and crafting a feeling that something truly beautiful and transcendent is happening on screen. However, the final moments lose all of their luster and impact because of the tedious key-hunting.
It’s a shame because when Abzu embraces its own thoughtful and deliberate pace, it comes maddeningly close to serene. The interactive equivalent of lucid meditation or relaxing in a hot bath. But when it gets self-conscious and tries to throw in normal gameplay thinking you’ve fallen asleep, it becomes the equivalent of trying to meditate or have a relaxing bath while someone flicks you in the back of the head every 20 minutes. This isn’t to say these more video gamey elements are badly put together, but there’s a time and a place for everything and the whole experience would have been better if one or two of those parts were reduced or cut down completely.
Despite the people working on it, Abzu isn’t an instance of lightning striking twice. There are some jaw-dropping visuals and beautiful artistry on display, but there are a few too many issues and shortcomings stopping this from becoming a classic. I didn’t hate the four to five hours I spent with Abzu and on its own merits, it is a solid experience, just not half the quietly impactful tour de force it could have been. If you have a thing for marine biology or want the feeling of swimming in an ocean without booking a trip, give this a look.