ABZÛ is an adventure game released for the PS4 and PC on August 2nd, 2016. It was developed by @GiantSquidology and published by @505_Games. For more info check out ABZÛ’s site. Screenshots taken by myself.
I like to take notes while I play a game for review. When I pulled myself away from my monitor after beating ABZÛ, all in one sitting, I went over my notes and noticed I had written the same word several times throughout my list: gorgeous. And if you take one thing away from this review let it be that ABZÛ is an indisputably gorgeous game. In a year of gorgeous indie games like Inside and Firewatch, we’re spoiled yet again by an indie title with visuals that put AAA games to shame.
An Underwater Journey…
ABZÛ is the latest game from Matt Nava (@matt_nava), the lead artist on Journey. Coming off the heels of one of video game’s most critically acclaimed indie titles puts an incredible amount of pressure on someone. How do you top Journey? Well, it seems with ABZÛ they took the winning formula and placed it in the exact opposite of Journey‘s desolate desert: an underwater wonderland. ABZÛ looks and feels so much like Journey you might as well call it a spiritual successor.
Being similar to Journey isn’t an issue, however. In fact, for those who have played Journey, they will feel very comfortable in ABZÛ‘s vast, stunning underwater world. They’ll recognise that feeling of wonder when they float into a new area and begin exploring its many mysteries. They’ll notice even subtle things like a shifting camera when the designer wants you to notice the landscape or the slight gestures and simple noises the characters make without speaking a word yet somehow say all they need to say. ABZÛ adapts Journey‘s winning formula almost unabashedly. This allows it to be both familiar to those who’ve played Journey, and easily accessible to those who may have never even played a game before.
… with an Important Message
ABZÛ stars a nameless black and yellow diver who through their underwater travels comes across bleak and desolate reefs, areas abandoned by all life and left to wallow in death. The player provides a healing touch, however, and after several healing encounters like these, it’s pretty obvious that ABZÛ‘s message is one of restoration. ABZÛ uses its gorgeous ocean setting to captivate the player and then takes away that gorgeous setting to make players understand the immense loss of life and beauty that is happening in oceans all across the world today.
Every part of ABZÛ is tailored around this message of awareness of destruction and more importantly the hope that we can heal. The game’s title is a combination of two ancient Sumerian words: ‘Ab’ meaning ‘to know’ and ‘Zu’ meaning ‘the ocean.’ ABZÛ is a game of knowing the ocean, realising the sad state of our planet’s aquatic life and recognising what a tragedy the loss of so much beauty truly is. The game even has a special thank you to Sir David Attenborough in the credits, one of the world’s most well-known naturalists and advocates for preserving the earth.
Video games that tackle important political issues like environmentalism are few and far between, especially in a medium usually more concerned with big explosions and over the top gore and violence. It’s very refreshing to play a game that earnestly blends this message with gorgeous visuals and intuitive gameplay in a way that doesn’t shove that message down your throat. You could quite possibly play through the entire game and completely miss the message. But for players who are immersed in the world and the story they are rewarded with an overarching meaning to their actions.
Movement is a Joy
While I initially had a little trouble with the movement, probably because there are three different directional inputs each one with a different default, after a couple minutes of inverting and reverting the various controls I eventually found a setup that worked well for me. Once past these tricky controls, however, I quickly discovered the joy of gliding through the water, gaining speed by using my flippers at the right time. The movement is fluid and incredibly enjoyable. It reminded me a great deal of how it felt to slide down dunes in Journey or dance around the world in Bound. ABZÛ is in the upper echelon of third person movement.
It’s the subtle controls that the game doesn’t tell you, and you could play through in entirety without discovering, that make the experience more meaningful. Players can hold onto the marine life and follow them around the reefs. If you hold onto a dolphin and guide it towards the surface they will leap out and do a flip. It’s a great scene, like something out of a painting, but you would never see it if you weren’t looking for it. It’s these small things that, once you start discovering them, bring you to want to explore the world more and more. It’s a game of exploration and the graceful beauty of the diver’s movement make this exploration a delight.
An Experience to Remember
There were moments in ABZÛ that genuinely moved me. There were times that scared me, bringing me to the edge of my seat in anticipation, and there were parts that brought me great joy through which I grinned like an idiot at what I was doing. ABZÛ‘s superb sound design and music also make the experience that much more memorable. With a score from the incredibly talented Austin Wintory (@awintory) who also scored Journey (surprise surprise), ABZÛ‘s soundtrack carries the mood through its distinctly different environments and accentuates the poignant moments perfectly. Clashes of percussion and strings highlighted times when something incredible happened and low humming strings set the stage for the dark and mysterious sections. This orchestral ambience is contrasted with really mechanical sound effects from the robots and the diver. It’s a great mix that really sticks out from most games in recent memory.
Where Journey was a game about ascending a mountain, where your goal was clearly defined by the glint at its peak, ABZÛ is a winding, wandering adventure through the ocean. There’s no clear goal in some areas and that really begs the player to explore all the reef’s rolling hills and deep crevices. It introduces the player to all the diverse and wonderful creatures that inhabit this world and helps us learn to appreciate the wonder that is our marine life. And it asks the player an important question: how does the destruction and loss of all this wonderful life make you feel? It’s this question that is the true message of ABZÛ and what makes its theme of healing and restoration so meaningful.
ABZÛ is a stellar example of what a spiritual successor can be. It blends patterns and feelings established in Journey with a whole new setting and story. It draws from all the best parts of Journey without feeling like a regurgitation. ABZÛ delivers a gorgeous third person aquatic adventure with an important message and it’s a must play game in 2016.