Abzu Review - The Underwater Journey

After twenty minutes of playing Abzu, I had already gone through a rainbow of emotions. During the settle-in process, I was uncommonly excited and curious. Seeing the vibrant, oceanic surrounding gave me a rare sense of euphoria. But as soon as I entered a desolated, dark location, I felt terribly lonely and scared. What followed were four hours full of peace, relaxation, and love. This is one of the most unusual video games I've played this year, and I can't wait to tell you why:

Developed by Giant Squid, studio founded by Flower and Journey art director Matt Nava, Abzu takes full advantage of its underwater setting, presenting an unforgettable aquatic world. As soon as I started playing, I honestly couldn't believe how incredible their version of the ocean looked. It's drop-dead gorgeous. First off, it features what is easily the most powerful artstyle I've seen in 2016. Inspired by the previously mentioned titles, it's colorful as a Pixar motion picture, and the utilization of ambiance is excellent. From clouds and fauna, to caverns and rocks, everything looks spectacular. On the more technical side of things, I was quite impressed by the particle effects and the way exterior light would realistically penetrate through the ocean. Framerate remained steady throughout, even when hundreds of fish where swarming my screen.

At its core, this is a walking simulator. Or in this case, swimming simulator. Playing as a diver, you must discover and explore the beautiful (yet dangerous) underwater world, in order to unlock the mysteries that hide underneath. In the process, you will interact with the extremely large, and equally beautiful marine life. Thousands of unique species like fish, sharks, turtles, jellyfish, and whales are at your disposition as you roam around the sea. However, you are never threatened. Nobody will chase you, and there are no terrifying jumpscares. Also, there is no map or HUD. You're never explicitly told what your objective is or where you should go. As the player, you're absolutely isolated alongside a multitude of sea creatures. Once it sinks in, this magically becomes a therapeutic experience.

When it comes to gameplay, Abzu places a ton of importance on exploration. Progression is done in linear fashion, rather than an open-world sandbox. Having said that, the environments are huge! Each 'chapter' of the game is set in different landscapes of the sea, including deep oceanic regions, coral reefs and flooded ruins. They all look and feel different. Additionally, there is a clear focus on verticality. I was truly amazed by the massive depth found in each level, allowing you to stick your head out and enjoy the sun, or dive into the dark bottom of the ocean with no load screens. It's important to mention that the load screens that do appear, are exceptionally long. They can take up to 40 seconds to finish. The length constantly attempted to break my immersion, to no success.

Mechanically, I have very mixed feelings. What is there is pretty good, but it simply isn't enough. To be fair, swimming is great. The controls are surprisingly responsive and smooth. Every item has a weight, and the ocean itself operates like it's real-life counterpart. For the majority of the journey, you will be swimming to a location and pressing square to activate various mechanisms. While pretty simple and sweet at first, it eventually became slightly stale. Titles like Firewatch and Gone Home aren't mechanically complex, but the actions you are performing never feel repetitive. In multiple sections of Abzu, you have to simply flip 2 switches to open a door with almost no other variation. I wish a couple of more mechanics would have been added in order to increase the fun level.

Finally, we get to the story. Abzu's narrative is not told in a traditional way. There are no dialogue or cutscenes. Everything you gather from beginning to end is very symbolic and interpretable. In a weird way, this bizarre method of storytelling worked. Even if I don't fully understand what the diver's quest is about, I still experienced a handful of unforgettable moments that will be stuck in my head for years to come. These glorious moments are achieved thanks to a combination of a specific color palette, the heavenly soundtrack, a well-crafted sense of pace, and the particular situation you're handling. My jaw dropped many times, and the team who put these pieces together deserve credit.

Verdict: Despite a couple of unfortunate issues, Abzu is still a rewarding and unforgettable journey into the underwater world you shouldn't miss. 

The Good
- Gorgeous Visuals
- Therapeutic
- Great Exploration
- Memorable Moments
- Responsive Swimming Controls

The Bad
- Mechanically Thin
- Lengthy Load Screens

Developer: Giant Squid
Publisher: 505 Games
Format: PS4 (reviewed), PC
Release Date: August 2, 2016
A review copy was provided by 505 Games

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