Game Review: Abzû (PS4)

Flowing with the fast moving current, I was pulled into the direction it would take me. Passing by schools of fish and dozens of underwater life and vegetation, Abzû wastes no time in getting you from new area to new area all while its fantastic orchestral score plays in the background.

Abzû is a gorgeous underwater exploration game crafted by Journey Art Director, Matt Nova. It also happens to be the first game under his new game company, Giant Squid. Even Journey musical composer Austin Wintory has returned here as well, lending his extreme talents to one of the best scores I have experienced in any entertainment medium.

There isn’t much story here as Abzû is more about a visual and emotional treat than one of narrative. You start the game as a mysterious diver dropped into the ocean with a few movement tutorials that will get you on your way. You’ll press R2 to move forward, X to boost and the Left Analog stick to move around. You can interact with certain elements in the game with the square button as well. There is a short roll with the circle button, but it never seemed to have much point to it.

Near the start, just a few minutes in, you’ll make your first friend; a small little underwater drone. You will meet a few of these as you progress, but it’s a far cry from the relationship you’ll make much later on and throughout this three hour adventure. These drones can be communicated to with the square button, but it doesn’t really accomplish much; other than a few audible cues. About the only thing these drones are useful for is cutting through coral walls that halt your progress, of which there is maybe half a dozen of them, if that.

Abzû is simple, relaxing and paced wonderfully. It also helps that the art direction is beyond stunning with impressive visuals that compliment the tone and feel of the game. Each new area that you’ll be introduced to is breathtaking in not only its scope, but in the collection of underwater life that populate it. You can meditate in various sections of the game that allow you to just take in all that is around you. While you can latch onto a few of the underwater inhabitants, and go for a ride, it is mainly just for show as they tend to just swim around in circles. It’s pretty cool, but at the same time somewhat pointless.

There is very little context to why you are doing what you are doing, but it never really got in the way of my enjoyment of the title. I can see why some people would pass on this game because it may look boring, but Abzû isn’t trying to be some action orientated epic. There is very light puzzle solving here, with most puzzles consisting of simply trying to find a switch to open a door.

While there isn’t a big overall story to this game, you’ll progress from area to area and take in several gorgeous environments and sunken shrines. These shrines have paintings everywhere that show bits and pieces of a mysterious history. You’ll encounter some danger along the way, but there isn’t any combat nor death (at least from my experience..) to stop your progress. This is a game about exploring the ocean deep, and it does a fantastic job with this concept.

There are some sections later on that involve being out of the water, as well as an interesting twist that I did not see coming, but these walking sections don’t lend much to the experience and I wish the game had been kept to just swimming instead, which is what the game excels at.

Controls can be fairly decent with the exception of some camera issues that usually plague flying or swimming games in general. You can change orientation of the sticks to have up is up and down is down, or invert like most flying games allow. It can take a while to get used to, but eventually it becomes somewhat second nature. It’s also a blessing that the game never really needs to challenge you to master controls in events that test your skills on the controller.

The orchestral score really makes this game come alive, reminding me of Disney’s Fantasia and the works of Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli films. The score is incredibly well put together and the highs and lows of the game’s emotional tone is easily felt in the music here. It’s a stunning soundtrack for sure and one you’ll want to experience.

There are various collectibles to gather in the way of interactive zones that unleash new aquatic life into the area, or snails that will show up in the hub world to visit later. You can also tag schools of fish during the sections of the game that push you along with the current at some pretty fast speeds. Usually these gatherings of fish pass by you very quickly, so if they are considered ‘shoals’ of fish, then my mistake.

There are minor issues I have with the game. The ending didn’t feel as impactful as I hope it would be, given the build up throughout the adventure. Sometimes the controls for moving the camera up or down can cause you to get a bit disoriented when you are just trying to swim around, but camera issues are usually a problem in most games like this anyway. Being a narrative driven gamer there are some story elements to the game told via the pictures in some of the sunken shrines you’ll come across that I wish could have been better worked into telling the history of what went on here, but that’s just me.

I’ve never played Journey, so the similarities I have seen talked about, well, they are just lost on me. I’ve seen the game referred to as an underwater version of Journey, and if that is your thing, then definitely try out this game. I adored Abzû and found it to be visually striking, fun and relaxing to explore and its orchestral score is just incredible. If you’ve yet to play a game, or experience like this, then maybe it’s time to get your feet wet.

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