By Chris Byrne
It’s hard to think in recent memory a game that can make you feel connected with nature in the way Abzu does. Every part of this game has the potential to leave you awestruck at the mystery within the depths of its digitally rendered ocean, and the game will keep you engrossed throughout it’s short but sweet experience.
The game comes from Giant Squid Studios, and was founded by Matt Nava, who some of you may know as the art director for Journey. It’s safe to say that not only has this title lived up to the visual awe of its predecessors, I’d go as far as to say it surpasses them. I was left awestruck by how vibrant and colourful the depths of this world were. It uses an artstyle which is reminiscent of Journey, but almost has a touch of Wind Waker mixed into the palette. Not only that, but considering the game's short length, it packs an impressive amount of environments for you to explore. For example you are taken from vast open spaces to swim and interact with the sealife, underground caverns which look long lost to the human eye, and even something which conveys something more mechanical and dangerous. When given the option to move on, sometimes I didn’t want to, just so I could soak more of what my eyes were being treated to.
Regarding the gameplay, you can expect something pretty similar to what Journey was. You swim through the ocean and can interact with various parts of the environment around you, such as waking up a robot to advance by cutting open a new route, or even swimming with the larger fish in the ocean. There’s something very satisfying about simply holding on to a killer whale and swimming through the environment. It’s hard to mention too much in the way of gameplay, because for the most part the controls are swimming, a boost button and grabbing onto the wildlife. However this is not to the game's detriment. On the contrary having a simple but elegant gameplay system means that you can more naturally flow through the game in the way that engrosses you into this world. After all, this game doesn’t have any combat or notable puzzles. It’s a game that wants to connect you with nature, let you decide your own interpretation of its world and to appreciate the power of its artful world and emotionally engaging music. It tells the story of the world through the environment and the music rather than relying on any dialogue. There isn’t much in the way of a failure state, but it’s not something that I missed. You can also explore the environment to find some collectibles and find new sea creatures hiding away, which then become part of the surrounding environment.
As I mentioned, this game isn’t very long, clocking in at less than two hours. For some this is could be too short a title to justify for it’s price, but I assure you what this game lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. It’s replay value is still in question for me, as I’m not sure how much lasting appeal will be in finding various collectibles or going after this games trophies, but it’s a great title to relax to, considering its short completion time. It’s short experience is memorable enough to justify its short length, and I could see myself playing this quite comfortably in a few months time.
When it comes to video games as art, you have to consider the whole cohesive package that gaming can offer to you. And one that ties in with everything else this game does, is it’s utterly stellar soundtrack. Composer Austin Wintory’s score perfectly fits the visuals and tone that are displayed in front of you. I love the way it avoids using obvious melodic patterns, yet it still ebbs and flows perfectly with how you move and progress, evoking a sense of wonder, and when called upon, danger. It’s just as enjoyable as Journey in the way the music matches your actions, for example entering another area and the music will crash out. It’s one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard this year from any video game.
What I also enjoy about these types of games is how they leave the story so ambiguous. It’s told completely through the art and the music, leaving you as a player to decipher your own interpretation of what you think the game is trying to convey to you. It has no need to use combat or dialogue to be engaging, just wonderful art and clever design to make a great game.
If I had any criticism of this title, it would be that it’s plot beats feel a bit too similar to both Journey and Flower, the game’s predecessors. That doesn’t stop the fact that this game feels like a natural evolution of those games. In almost every aspect, Abzu takes what made those games great, and refines those to make something that’s even more special. There really isn’t much else to say to be honest. Abzu is simply put, a short but sweet video game capable of proving to anybody that video games can be, and are of course, art.