Abzu is a gorgeous, laconically paced, meditative experience that is all too brief, and all too beautiful. At times, it makes you feel a sense of elation and awe that I’ve rarely experienced in any other game. Other times, the terror of the darkness, of the crushing void of the endless ocean around you is almost palpable enough to make you feel like you’re suffocating on your sofa.
From some of the minds behind 2012’s beautiful Journey - including director Matt Nava and composer Austin Wintory - the comparisons are clear, and they’re easy and lazy. There’s scarce gameplay or genuine peril in the world of Abzu, but that isn’t what the experience is all about.
You take on the role of a diver, who awakes floating on the surface of a vast, gorgeous ocean, As you explore the deep beneath you, you find a range of ancient springs which seem to restore life to the dying ocean that surrounds you, springing forth sea creatures both real and ancient, in a flood of colour and life.
The story is told through the world around you, and ancient cave paintings and statues. There’s not a single word of dialogue, not a line of text written throughout the world. Your height of interaction is the ability to send out a sonar pulse to communicate with the marine life, and the ability to ride certain larger fish for a quicker method of travelling.
Your journey through Abzu is linear, besides a few hidden collectibles in certain areas, your route through the oceans of the world will always be the same. There are areas that excellently mimic the vastness of the open sea and conceal that you are on a linear progression, but swim long enough, and you’ll find the diver automatically turning back.
It’s hard to describe what makes Abzu so special. It’s an incredibly gorgeous game, using a bright, colourful slightly cel shaded style (rather similar to Firewatch, another game I loved) and it provides the best representation of undersea life I’ve seen in any video game. The swimming mechanics are satisfyingly fluid, and breaching the surface in a Free Willy style moment with a cadre of dolphins or orcas is one of my favourite gameplay moments of this year.
Everything about Abzu gels together to make it an incredibly peaceful, meditative experience, and the game even encourages this. Alongside the backdrop of Wintory’s incredibly diverse score, each main area is packed with sea life swimming around, minding its own business. Sharks hunt small fish, who move in shoals, spinning like cyclones. Whales sing and breach the surface for air. Dolphins travel in their pods, hopping from the cool water into the blazing sunlight.
Throughout these areas, you’ll find statues that the Diver can set on, cross legged, where you can press a button to “meditate”. This sends the camera trailing after various sea life, allowing you to watch them to swim to their heart’s content while the understated score allows you to sink into the world.
It’s hard to shut up that part of your brain where you wonder how long you have to do this to get an achievement, whether there’s some secret in all of this. It’s true, if you find every meditation spot, you’ll get an achievement for your troubles, but it’s doing Abzu a massive disservice to not just sit on that rock and let the ocean move around you. I meditate in my own life, and I’ve never had a game that echoes the feeling of peaceful tranquillity it brings quite as well as Abzu does.
Abzu’s most unique hooks are also its biggest weaknesses. With no real obvious plot to speak of, no puzzles besides pushing a few buttons to open a door, and no actual peril, it’s fairly thin on the ground when it comes to actual gameplay. Swimming around is a sheer joy, but it never changes from the first second to the very last.
Abzu is a linear experience that can easily be beat in a couple of hours, and only holds replay value for achievement hounds. The intentions of the developer, Giant Squid, are telling however. There’s an option to meditate right from the main menu. Abzu is half zen tool, and half video game, and they are two hats that it manages to wear surprisingly well. It has to be seen to be believed, played to be understood.
In a world of hyper kinetic, ultra-violent video games, Abzu feels transcendently peaceful. A meditative experience without the uncomfortable leg crossing or awkward hippy posturing, it’s a truly special experience. It’s beautiful waters are worth dipping your toes in to.