Review: Abzû

There are very few games that have left me utterly astounded and speechless after a full play through. I’m almost hesitant to write this review as I feel like any words used to describe how utterly beautiful and captivating this game is, would be doing it a disservice.  This game was more than a video game for me, it was truly a piece of art that I will remember for the rest of my life.  Although at times extremely similar to Journey, which is not a bad thing by any means, this game successfully exceeded all expectations that I had going into it and has my vote for Game of the Year.

Abzû was the first brain child of the developers at Giant Squid, and I personally feel that they truly outdid themselves.  All future games they may create will have a lot to live up to as they not only put themselves onto a pedestal, but they built the damn pedestal they’re standing on.  Just by playing through once, it became apparent to me that this game is polished.  The level of detail that these developers put into not just the world but in your character is amazing.  I’ve played through several underwater adventures in just this summer alone, and this is the only game that I feel has successfully managed to suck players in and make them feel as if they were that deep sea diver.  The movements are fluid without feeling like there is a lag in reaction time between when you press a controller button and what occurs on screen.  As you’re swimming, your characters’ movements are so lifelike that it truly feels like you are watching an undersea dance unfold before your very eyes.

Not only is it apparent that a lot of work went into just honing your characters’ movements, but the actual setting of Abzû is remarkable.  As you progress through the various zones, or “levels”, you’ll start to see a variety of sea life swimming around you.  Each species you encounter is a real creature found within the ocean, and each one was studied meticulously in order to truly capture how it would actually move in the ocean.  You can also study every single one of them.  Let’s think about this for a second, instead of just having the fish swim around as pretty background objects, the developers instead built in little “meditation” stations that allow your character to sit down and zoom into each of the various sea life swimming around in that area.  You are actually encouraged to slow down at times in order to enjoy everything that is happening in the background of the actual story.  It’s a unique gameplay that I quite enjoyed, and it really shows the confidence levels of the developers to allow a player to sit back and actually look at the game they produced.  Whether it’s intentional or not, I feel like this aspect of gameplay is often times thrown to the sidelines in order to accommodate for the action component of a game.  We often forget how important setting is when storytelling and Abzû’s change in gameplay mentality was a breath of fresh air that I hope truly dawns a shift in how it is used for future game development.

A lot has to be said about the story writers for a company, when they are able to produce a moving tale with absolutely no dialogue.  Like with Journey, a game in which many fellow reviewers are saying this game derives similarities with, this game tells most of its story with the occasional quick cut scene to kind of guide your character, as well as through the various images found along the way to your end goal.  Despite the lack of dialogue, you can’t help but feel enthralled by what is being told through the soundtrack alone.  You feel an emotional pull for your character, you feel betrayal by the various (no spoilers I promise) situations that arise as you delve deeper into the ocean.  You feel sadness, curiosity, joy, and finally hope all along the way with literally nothing to evoke these emotions except for what you as a character have experienced along the way.  Credit where credit is needed, Austin Wintory did an exceptional job with the games score.  Ever since I played Journey, I have been a huge fan of his work and Abzû did not disappoint me.  In fact, I’d be inclined to argue that Abzû’s score may outshine Journey’s simply due to the number of times where I was inclined to put down my control to just stop and listen to the beautiful melody that was pouring out of my speakers.  It’s games like these where I often times have to remind myself just how powerful of a story teller music can be.

From the moment I picked up this game, I was fully expecting a ‘Journey’ 2.0.  That alone was what compelled me to initially purchase the game, and in all honesty the entire first half is a complete ‘Journey’ throwback.  The music coupled with the initial art style is hugely inspired by that game.  It’s also impossible to look at your little diver without realizing that he is strikingly similar in appearance to your little hooded adventurer from ‘Journey’. In fact, the game actually doesn’t have anything that sets it apart as its own unique thing until about half way through.  That’s when the story really started to pick up for me and I was able to feel the goosebumps on the back of my neck.  The game leads you thinking that the story is going to unfold one way, and then half way through the game there is a HUGE plot twist and suddenly it’s going in a way you weren’t expecting (above ground gameplay in a supposedly purely underwater game…what?).  It was at that moment, and if you play the game you’ll know it when it comes, that I realized that this game was its own unique entity and that it has set itself up to be compared on truly equal footing with ‘Journey’.

About the only issue that I had with the game was that the camera movement on the PS4 was a little difficult to master.  If you are going to get this game, keep in mind that it comes standard inverted.  So if you aren’t used to that kind of camera control you will need to adjust it in the settings.  Even after adjusting, it is a little tricky to maintain an ideal camera angle.  I’ve found that this is something that happens often with underwater games, and unfortunately Abzû falls into this category.  Outside of that, once you get used to the odd camera movements this game is a must try.  I will most definitely be revisiting this gorgeous game for the next several years just for the experience.  This game is quick, it took me about an hour and half total to beat and that was even with me stopping at every single little meditation spot in order to look at all the different oceans species swimming around me.  That’s what was so beautiful about this game, it was simple yet deep.  It’s games like this that really cement my love and support for independent game developers, and why I will continue to look for similar games such as this in the future. 

What do you think?  Do you feel like it was a copycat of Journey, or do you feel like it was its own game in the same genre?  What were some of your favorite moments in the game?  Did you have any moments where you felt like the game was lacking?  Let us know in the comments below.