It would be utterly impossible not to compare Giant Squid’s new game Abzu, the very first to be produced by the small yet talented indie team, to the emotional masterpiece that is Journey. For one thing, the team behind Abzu are comprised of several ex-members who were responsible for the creation of the brilliant scarf-wearing simulator we all know and love (I was personally reduced to a weeping mess upon my completion of Journey.) Yet, to draw such constant comparisons would be robbing Abzu for the chance to radiate in its own accomplishments, of which I can attest are many indeed.
The first thing you’ll undoubtedly notice upon diving into Abzu for the very first time is just how beautiful the whole sensory experience is. I was Abzu-lutely overwhelmed, my senses sent reeling in amazement at the gorgeously realised ocean world that stretched out into the endless abyss before me. There is an awe-inspiring feeling of grandeur to the whole experience, no doubt due to the fact that you are a lone single diver, lost in an aquatic jungle teeming with life evoking all the dazzling colours of the rainbow.
Navigating this wondrous watery world is just as pleasing thanks to the sleek and elegant control system. Weaving your way through the floating forests of kelp feels effortless and natural, with all the grace and poise of dolphin dancing in the deeps. Exploring the depths of Abzu is made all the more enjoyable by the brilliance of the control systems, and I think it might just be the greatest watery movement system ever devised for a videogame. There are a few niggles, mainly concerning the fact that the forcibly prevents you from swimming too far from the prescribed path. It is by no means deal-breaking, but it shatters the illusion of the ocean being a vast and near limitless expanse. A sleeker, less intrusive system needs to be developed for future titles, for in its current you cannot help but thing of Abzu as compressed funnel as opposed to an endless ocean of wonder.
Another problem that confounds the experience is that of the narrative. Like similar games in the genre, the narrative is one of abstract notions and subtle environmental storytelling, all of which are meant to gently immerse you in a highly expressive experience. Unfortunately, Abzu’s attempts of inducing a powerful emotional reaction fall drastically short. Its tale of nature versus man is about as fresh as week-old kippers, leaving little to the imagination. There is nothing overtly wrong with the story the game is trying to tell, yet I never felt like my heart was really invested and one with the story. I expect to be reduced to bouts of uncontrollable blubbering when playing the likes of Abzu, but in this case I was merely left disappointed.
That’s not to say that Abzu completely fails to usher forth any form of deep emotional resonance. I’ve yet to mention the soundtrack as I have been saving the best until last. It is truly sublime, gloriously painting a mesmerising and serine audio landscape that perfectly captures the delicate emotive nuances of the ocean. I highly recommend using a surround sound headset in order to fully appreciate the brilliance of the sound design. On top of the resonating soundtrack, the sounds of the sea itself are equally as impressive, melding together seamlessly with the former to create a luscious audio feast fit for Poseidon himself.
All of these outstanding design elements reach their peak during the moments of meditation. At serval points throughout the game you can lay down your towel and lose yourself in the vibrant oceans that surround you. It is here, during these moments of enlightenment, that the true brilliance of Abzu is realised. As the fabulous fish lazily drifted through the vibrant coral jungles and the calm tones of the ocean filled my every waking thought, I felt my very soul relax in the calm majesty that surrounded me.
That’s what makes Abzu special. It’s a tranquil port in the storm of chaos and destruction that encompasses the majority of gaming landscape. It is by no means perfect, especially when you consider the poorly expressed narrative, but if you are ever in need of a break from the pandemonium of reality, Abzu is the perfect remedy for the stresses and tribulations of everyday society.