The Underwater Journey
HIGH Swimming through a huge school of fish for the first time.
LOW There’s no substance to the gameplay.
WTF Is that part of the game time travel, or…?
There’s more to a great video game than graphics. Of course looks have a role, but what’s more important is the way it plays.
Games are unique in that they can combine sights, sounds, critical thinking, reflexive response, imagined peril and more to engage a person in a way that no other medium can, and the best blend these elements into something that works on all levels. But at their core? There has to be something of substance. A game with poor visuals and strong play can be a great experience, while the opposite is not true. Forgetting the game and putting too much focus on aesthetics makes for a vapid, forgettable result.
Unfortunately, Abzu falls into the latter category.
This weightless title from Giant Squid starts the player as a small character in a skin diver’s suit set loose in an ocean to explore. There’s no explanation, no backstory given, and no obvious goals. I’m not a stranger to ‘artistic’ titles or those that embrace enigmas, so it’s a fine enough way to begin. The problem is that Abzu doesn’t follow this up with much to chew on, and what little it does put forward doesn’t hold together well.
Mechanically, the player can swim and give an audio chirp to interact with a small number of objects. When near large-sized undersea creatures, the diver can ‘ride’ on them, and that’s about all he or she can do. This could potentially be enough depending on what happens in Abzu’s levels, but what they offer is ‘not much’.
Of course, each area is a beautiful seascape and the semi-abstract/semi-real art style comes across fantastically. The colors are bright, each new view seems richer than the last, and the first time I swam through a massive school of swirling fish was absolutely breathtaking. However, it wasn’t long (the second level, in fact) before I started to wonder what the game was going to have me do. Again, the answer was ‘not much’.
Abzu is a fairly contained experience. Rather than having huge swaths of the ocean to wander, each of its levels are large rooms connected with tunnels or halls, and there’s little in them except for fish swimming around and (usually) one simple task like activating a gate, or opening a door. This design is repeated from start to finish, and it was a shame how quickly things fell into a routine. Further, for such a small-scale project, I’m baffled why parts of it don’t feel like they make much sense or even fit together well.
For example, in the first few sections, the player is required to find a robot drone which can get them through a grate. These drones seemed like companions that I’d get to know, or that they’d somehow become more relevant later. Instead, they’re soon abandoned and never amount to being more than simple keys.
While near the sea floor, small craters can be spotted and activated to release fish. It’s not clear what these things are, or why creatures emerge from them. It’s like they belong in a different game—displaying the species’ name onscreen while manta rays fly out of a hole in the ground is something that would be right at home in an educational CD-ROM from the ‘90s.
There’s also some sort of dimension-hopping and a nexus-like area whose purpose is unclear, there might be some time travel, and later on a magical great white shark shows up because… reasons? There are a lot of things in Abzu that don’t justify their inclusion other than the fact that they look fairly cool, and after rolling credits, I was left with the sense that the developers really, really liked Journey and wanted to create a wetter version—they just don’t have their own clear vision.
Abzu offers up a similar ‘lonely character on a quest’ vibe, there are storytelling hieroglyphics on the walls of ruins, the character’s audio chirps, artificial objects encroaching on nature is a theme, there are some fast-moving travel sections reminiscent of certain parts of Journey… It’s like Abzu is following ThatGameCompany’s template but they’re just aping the form without capitalizing on the things that are unique to their own work. Without spoiling anything, it was disappointing to see one late-game moment that genuinely surprised me and felt powerful, yet nothing came of it. There’s also a quasi-reveal that seems like it should amount to more than it does, but again… nope.
This undersea tour is quite short. I got through it in about two hours or so and was surprised by the brevity, but it’s probably better that way. No matter how beautiful it is to swim with whales or to descend into an undersea crevasse, there is precious little to do in Abzu, and it’s never particularly touching or thought-provoking. If it told a better tale or if there were more to it than swimming and occasionally pushing a button, it might have been a knockout. As it stands, the appeal of looking at pretty fish wears off in a hurry, and there’s not much else to recommend it.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Giant Squid and published by 505 Games. It is currently available on PS4, XBO and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 2 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E and contains mild fantasy violence. I’m struggling to recall any violence in the game. There was one area where the diver might get hit by an explosion, but no damage is done to him. At one point, a shark suddenly appears for a tiny jump scare. Otherwise… I got nothing. This one is super-safe for the kids, I’d say.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: There is no dialogue and no relevant auditory cues. It’s totally accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable, although they are fairly simple—a stick to change direction and R2 to move forward. L2 to ride fish and Square to interact.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody's looking, and his favorite game of all time is a toss-up between the first Mass Effect and The Witcher 3. You can catch his written work here at GameCritics and you can hear him weekly on the @SoVideogames Podcast. Follow Brad on Twitter and Instagram at @BradGallaway, or contact him via email:
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