When you think about exploring the ocean, it evokes feelings of tranquility, fluidity, and discovery. Diving into deep water is a feeling like no other, like gliding through a peaceful and surreal world. It is a calming ritual, a brief escape from our chaotic lives on the surface. Abzu has taken these moments and crafted them into a serene experience filled with a sense of wonder and curiosity. Accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack and breathtaking visuals, it is a glorious deep sea journey created by Giant Squid, a small development team of 10 people. I had an opportunity to get hands-on time with a demo version at this year’s E3, which proved to be one of my favorite games at the show.
Beginning on the water’s surface, I spent a few moments taking in my surroundings before diving deep into the ocean’s mysterious depths. From the first few seconds, I immediately noticed the fluidity of the simple controls. Holding R2 caused my diver to kick with her fins and propel her forward with a graceful motion. At times, I could press X to speed up my kicking, and turn and look around with the analog sticks. Within seconds I understood the capabilities of my diver and was free to begin my journey in the undersea depths.
One of my first impressions was that Abzu felt like a spiritual successor to Journey, which isn’t surprising given that it features a former developer from Thatgamecompany. With that being said, Abzu is very much its own game with its own identity. It evokes similar feelings of isolation, beauty, and wonder, but it feels much more “game-like” than Journey. There are a number of secrets to find, which can activated or collected by way of an on-screen prompt. It became clear later on that the game held many secrets and a good amount of time could be spent searching for them.
After diving into the deep, I immediately wanted to explore everything. In some ways, it was like looking at a moving watercolor painting. Realistic hindrances such as air supply are not present in the game, which would serve only to take away from the atmosphere. Abzu is not afraid to sacrifice realism in order to preserve its aesthetic and vision. It is not a diving simulator, but rather an illustration of graceful movement beneath the surface. The absence of any sort of on-screen HUD helped to immerse me into the experience and truly get absorbed in the peaceful atmosphere. The plant life swayed gracefully with the tide, as fish and other sea creatures swam by in a manner that felt appropriately realistic. Abzu’s wildlife is based on actual fish behavior, so it seemed natural when a school of small fish swam by in formation.
Fish of all sizes swam around me, moving independently, and even praying on each other. One of my favorite moments was when a giant manta ray swam above me, flowing through the deep blue ocean with the subtle grace of flight. After entering into a cave mouth, one of the biggest fish allowed me to ride on its fin, transporting me through a thick bunch of plant life.
Where many video games have struggled with swimming mechanics, Abzu has found a way to make it feel simple and natural. It is amazing that all of the frustrations that come with “swimming games” seems to have been completely alleviated. On top of that, it is calming and mechanically sound. Even vertically ascending and descending feels good, with the camera hardly getting in the way.
Abzu takes a minimalist approach, not just from a control standpoint, but also in its absence of any sort of tutorial or instruction. It’s a game that should really be “taken in” as well as played, so learning things subtly throughout the experience is the best approach. The player is simply reliant on taking in the atmosphere and experiencing the journey. Any sort of explanation or hand-holding would detract from what makes this game so great to play.
Despite virtually nothing being explained or hinted at, I personally feel as though there is a narrative story somewhere within Abzu. Progressing through coves and different stretches of ocean led me to beacons, which I activated using my “pulse” function. Activating one in particular transported me through a portal, where I oddly swam through the air above the water toward a shining tower. A fantasy or science fiction element is definitely present in the game’s aesthetic, which I was not able to quite grasp during the demo. However, this seems to be one of Abzu’s many mysterious secrets.
Abzu is a wonderful step forward for indie games, once again demonstrating that video games can be an art form filled with emotion and atmosphere. Giant Squid have crafted a gorgeous game with unique visuals and a wonderful premise. The beauty of the ocean is rarely captured in games, especially in a way that is so simple and rewarding. It’s a humble game with big ideas and a huge imagination that is not to overlooked this year. Abzu releases August 2nd on PS4 and PC.