Journey, but underwater. Read up on Abzû just about anywhere and you’ll find plenty of comparisons with thatgamecompany’s seminal 2012 release, and it makes sense, given that Giant Squid was founded by their former art director, Matt Nava. However, the more I revel in its submerged splendour, the more Abzû reminds me of that studio’s previous PlayStation hit, Flower. From the feel and flow of movement down to Austin Wintory’s poignant soundtrack, Abzû isn’t afraid to follow in those footsteps.
With little to no exposition, players don the alien visage of a Diver, a mysterious humanoid creature that explores beneath the water’s surface. Exactly what it’s looking for creates the game’s narrative arc, if you can call it that, as every ancient ruin found or fishy friend made paves another slab on the road to discovery.
Abzû combines a linear structure with open level design, inviting players to explore, interact, and meditate – yes, you read that correctly. Scattered throughout this subterranean realm are unusual statues, deliberately placed to act as perches. Once seated, you can scan the environment freely, shifting focus from one sea creature to the next. The game’s use of proper scientific classifications affords an educational insight into marine biology, complete with the odd Latin tongue twister.
Instead of simply surveying Abzû’s sea life, you can also interact with it. Your Diver can emit a chirping noise, manipulating objects in the environment while causing schools of fish to swim in tow. Larger animals, from sperm whales to stingrays, can be latched onto for a quick ride while performing graceful spins and pivots.
Bar one or two environmental hazards, there’s no real sense of danger to found in Abzû, nor is there any pressure to move on from one particular scene or moment. In fact, I’d often just stop and stare, soaking in the game’s atmosphere. A vibrant palette of colours work their way into a diverse spread of locales, each level having its own visual motif, however subtle. Naturally, Austin Wintory’s score helps to enhance this, galvanising Abzû’s most memorable and emotional moments.
Spread across six levels and a few hours of gameplay, it’s these moments that ultimately sell Abzû as a worthwhile addition to any gamer’s digital library. Needless to say, if storytelling means nothing to you, then move on. The same goes for those who insist on having their hand held at every turn instead of striking out on their own path.
If Giant Squid had removed every trace of its name from Abzû, you could easily have mistaken it for a thatgamecompany production. For a developer to nail that same sense of artistry and wonder with its debut is nothing short of amazing.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4