If anyone was wondering why the classic PS3 game, Journey was so dry and sandy we can blame art director and Giant Squid studio founder, Matt Nava who was apparently hoarding ALL the water for use in his new game Abzu. Juxtaposed against the desolate barrenness of the desert, Abzu is a world teeming with life, both plant and aquatic, yet somehow manages to instill that same level of character/player isolation throughout most of its four-hour run.
Much like Journey, Abzu begins with no introduction and no story relevance. You are this mysterious and strange looking swimmer wearing something that looks like a helmet that contains a black face and cat-like eyes. The rest of your attire could be a wetsuit of sorts, a suspicion backed up by a pair of elongated swim fins…assuming that’s not his/her real anatomy. Our genderless hero could even be an alien. Even by the end of the game there are no clear-cut answers; only possibilities that you may be the sole survivor of some ancient alien race somehow linked to the Egyptians. Of course that’s assuming we are even on Earth, but seeing as how the developers have gone to great lengths to include and call out by name a majority of known sea life, that’s a safe bet.
Abzu isn’t as much as game as it is an adventure of discovery. There are no real quests or objectives aside from making it to the end, which can be easily done in 2-3 hours if you plow through. Of course those craving to uncover all the hidden secrets submerged beneath the depths can add another two hours to that estimate. The game is divided into four main areas along with an opening and ending section that are all environmentally themed and contain some fairly simplistic puzzles required to proceed to each new chapter. In each area there are discoverable items such as fountains that spill forth a new species of fish as well as the numerous hidden conch shells and of course, the giant shark statues. There are 12 of these statues in the game and you can mediate on each of them while scanning the surrounding area and locating all the clusters of various undersea creatures.
You can also uncover and activate numerous little robots that will follow you around. Their use seems limited to cutting away webbing that blocks your way to the next area or acting as shark bait. While there are plenty of dangerous creatures swimming around the depths there is no death or fail-state in Abzu. The only time I thought I might die was after getting zapped six times in a row by these underwater electric mines, but thankfully my swimmer is as immortal as this game is destined to become.
Between each area are ancient temple-like ruins with hieroglyphics that hint at a possible background story and the worshipping of a giant shark. Even more cryptic is the giant alien-like inverted pyramid that you will visit frequently as you progress through the game. There is absolutely no exposition, and the few cutscenes the game does contain are merely transitional cutaways to showcase the environments from a cinematic perspective.
While most of the game is slow-paced swimming and exploring there are a few on-rails sections where you are caught in a fast-flowing current with just a slight control over your swimmer as you try to pass through clusters of fish and hopefully catch a stray conch shell as you speed by. The most exciting of these is near the end of the game in what can easily be described as one of the most triumphant moments of my gaming career, thanks mostly in part to the epic score created by Austin Wintory, whose score for Journey earned him a Grammy nomination. With no dialogue and minimal sound effects, Abzu relies heavily on its soundtrack, and this is by far one of my top three of the year.
The visuals are an art form of their own, with a style that at first glance looks like Wind Waker, but continues to dazzle the deeper you go. If your system can handle it crank this up to Ultra and watch as thousands of fish occupy the screen, swimming in their own schools of like species while predators feed on smaller prey. You can swim up to fish and “ping” them to have them swirl around you, but nothing is better than taking hold of a manta ray, shark, turtle, whale, or any other large fish and having them tow you around the level for a little sightseeing adventure. Starfish skitter across the ocean floor, majestic seahorses float on the current and transparent jellyfish light up the darkness with their bioluminescence as you swim effortlessly through coral, kelp, and all sorts of exotic underwater plant life.
Abzu defies the words I am using to write this review. Its effect on the player exceeds screenshots, trailers, or even watching somebody else play it on YouTube. This is the very definition of living, interactive art, and is something very personal that needs to be experienced firsthand, so if you have PC or PS4 you owe it to yourself to experience this masterpiece for yourself. It will surely become the new standard by which all other games in the genre are measured, and an undersea journey you’ll want to revisit time and time again.