If the BBC’s Blue Planet and thatgamecompany’s Journey had a lovechild, it would undoubtedly be Abzû. Originally released for PC, PS4 and Xbox One in 2016, Abzû recently made its way to the Nintendo Switch.
It follows the story of an ancient being as they travel across a stretch of ocean in order to prevent the damage caused by an ominous force. This has littered the ocean floor with a number of mine-like objects that wreak havoc on the environment and the wildlife, so you must travel the ocean, interacting with the world and the animals within it in a bid to stop the damage caused.
You start the game drifting in the ocean. The diver has the ability to breathe life back into many of the mechanical instruments scattered across the world, something that points to her relation to the ancient race of beings depicted throughout Abzû’s environment.
Compared to most games, Abzû is very tight-lipped with its narrative delivery and players must dig deeper into its world to unearth the secrets it holds. While there is a lot of reading between the lines to be done, many of the game’s narrative beats can be witnessed in the various mosaics you come across. You gradually piece together the story of these beings who could harness the power of the ocean.
For what Abzû lacks in edge-of-the-seat gameplay, it absolutely makes up for in artistic direction, world building and its presentation. The world is filled with amphibious beings, some of which are based on those we share the earth with now as well as some prehistoric beings. Abzû’s focus on featuring a large variety of animals is what makes it so unique. Each kind of mammal or fish behaves in their own way, with each one also reacting to the presence of the Diver.
A meditation mode allows players to really make the most of Abzû’s varied wildlife, offering them the chance to watch each type of amphibious animal go about its business in the world. While it is quite a simple idea, there’s something surprisingly enjoyable about watching each animal’s behaviour. I do wish some basic information about each of the species had also been included, because it would have been an excellent way to inform players while entertaining them.
The overarching narrative, the variety of animals in its world and the way it’s all tied together paint an important message: we need to take better care of our oceans. It’s a theme that’s prevalent throughout the game and one that sets it apart from its spiritual predecessor Journey. It’s also one of the few games I’ve played that doesn’t demonise sharks, so I just wanted to give it a shoutout for doing that. More people die as a result of cows each year than sharks, so yeah, leave sharks alone!
The fact that this experience can be taken on the go with Switch is nothing short of wonderful. I’ve been able to escape to Abzû during my lunchtimes, commutes and even for 5 or 10 minutes before I go bed in the evening. There are some performance issues and the framerate is far from stable on Switch, but I honestly feel like it doesn’t matter. Abzû is so solid and coherent as an experience that I rarely found myself bothered by the frame drops, instead focusing my attention on whatever was happening around the Diver.
The score – penned by Journey’s composer Austin Wintory – is mesmerising from start to finish. It perfectly elevates and accentuates every dramatic moment without taking center stage over what’s happening on-screen, while also perfectly capturing the wonder and intrigue of the ocean. I’m listening to it as a write this now, and will likely continue to do so in the coming months.
While the Journey comparisons are ultimately fair, I don’t feel like this is an inherently negative thing. Journey was an absolute masterpiece and there are very few games that have successfully emulated it, which is what makes Abzû so special. It takes the best parts of Journey, adds the production quality and presentation of a BBC Wildlife Documentary and tells its own rich, thought-provoking story.
Abzû is as fascinating and spellbinding now as it was two years ago. While there is a slight performance trade-off on the Nintendo Switch, being able to experience its beautiful, vibrant and deep world while on the go is an absolute delight. If you want a pocket-size experience that’s akin to a BBC documentary on nature, Abzû is absolutely for you.