When Abzu initially launched on PC, PlayStation 4 back in August 2016, it seemed an odd idea. Yet, a game that seemed to be about skulking around the depths of the ocean floor captured critics hearts. Now this utterly unique ocean crawler is out on the Nintendo Switch and I decided to dive in.
If you missed Abzu when it made a big slash, then this journey comes courtesy of indie publisher 505 games and developer The Big Squid. It follows an unnamed protagonist as they descend into a watery world, diving into a beautiful backdrop and the mysteries that are hidden beneath the surface. While I have not played a deep sea exploration game before, the visual inspiration that comes flooding on screen is more than familiar. Abzu might be set in the depths of the ocean but Thatgamecompany’s desert Journey is deeply ingrained in this game. Other titles like Rime and Shadow of the Colossus are also present as Abzu takes the simple shading that touches all of these games and uses it to create a world that looks vast, wild, and vibrant. Strange machines abandoned ruins, and sea creatures of every variety fill an experience that is constructed from simple shapes and flat colors, all drawn together to build an immersive 3D world that feels alive. What makes Abzu stand apart from these titles is the utterly gorgeous underwater reefs that blaze with color and just scream to be explored. Even on the Switch’s mobile screen this world manages to feel beautiful and vast.
Thankfully much of your time in Abzu is closely tied to exploring this world. A variety of environments make up the world and starting out in the aforementioned reefs allows players an opportunity to grow accustomed to the game’s controls. Swimming around the opening reef is very straightforward with movement and character cameras mapped to the Nintendo Switch’s analog controls. Beyond this, two buttons control acceleration and a single action button is used to interact items strewn around the ocean floor. This makes Abzu extremely accessible, and really allows players to immerse themselves in the world with minimal distraction.
As players make their way out into the wider ocean Abzu takes a deceptively linear path through the world, providing just enough freedom to pique players curiosity about what is around the next corner. From the unfolding story to the range of creatures that are on show, Giant Squid manages to provide enough interesting moments and breadth of content for players to feel like they are exploring rather than trudging through a quagmire. Whether it is the gorgeous hieroglyphs plastered across abandoned ruins or the schools of fish that the player can interact with, the little details make you want to just stop and watch the world as it floats by. The way that Abzu pulls he protagonist onward through this multitude of environments is impressive, switching between obvious camera pans, on rails elements, and subtle points of interest to coerce players through open spaces. Whether it is a school of fish in an empty ocean or a newly opened doorway, Abzu’s direction never feels forced and continues to builds on this sense of exploration.
As if the developer was reading from a well-worn script, Abzu is entirely devoid of dialogue, written or otherwise. This makes for an interesting approach to storytelling and Abzu leans heavily on the sort of imagery and audio that you might expect. The game is full of emotive moments, sweeping vistas, and melancholic metaphors that manage to convey the game’s central theme without having any unnecessary exposition. Central to this is the game’s music. The soundtrack is a deeply evocative theme that easily communicates the beauty, danger, and apprehension or exploring the ocean in a way that I did not expect. Had I realized that this was the work of Austin Wintory then I would not have bee n so surprised at how it just swept me away. Austin is BAFTA award-winning artist that is responsible for some of the most emotionally wrenching audio narratives that I’ve loved enduring. Journey, The Banner Saga, as well as Tooth and Tail are just some of his work that I’ve had the pleasure of playing. While Austin Wintery’s tracks are beautiful, what impressed me was how they are weaved into the narrative, triggering subtle changes in tone. These swaps occur between relevant parts of the same piece, setting a pace as players swim into new areas of the ocean.
The musical journey of Abzu can largely be divided into three distinct sections, much like the game and any great story. The bright and inquisitive opening gives way to a deeper and slightly more pressing mystery, and the triumphant end are all weaved into a fantastic structure that changes the environment, the playable mechanics, and the aforementioned story elements. That Giant Squid understand this and successfully use these techniques to deliver their ideas without a word makes the game far more than it initially seems.
After only a couple of hours, I resurfaced from my time with Abzu, and I struggle to say much bad about the game. Sure it is short and it is not a challenge but that misses the point of this tale. Abzu is a story. I dove in expecting an exploratory experience. What I got was a game that allows me to play with the local wildlife when I want, but quickly dragged me down into its tale. What that narrative means to me is largely down to your own experience. Giant Squid has the courage to understand that their audience can work things out on their own and while the simple puzzles won’t have you wondering for long, the narrative ideas behind Abzu have been running over in my mind for some time.