“Cousteau Never Got These Kinds of Results, Did He?”: Abzu Review
I recall the last time that this phenomenon happened to me, but I believe that my experience with Abzu, a breathtaking undersea adventure from the aptly named Giant Squid Studios, is one that will seem familiar to many gamers. The confusing and yet beautiful conundrum wherein one purchases a game expecting one very particular type of game, but is instead treated to something entirely different, yet every bit as enjoyable. Abzu is my latest foray into the uncharted waters of indie gaming afforded to me by the extraordinary work of publishers like Maximum, Soedesco, and, in this particular case, 505 Games. The expectations that I developed based on its Amazon product page and by YouTube videos were akin to something like an indie version of Nintendo’s Endless Ocean. The only real goals are the ones you assign yourself in a borderline educational experience about cataloging and interacting with realistic fish, only this time in environments taken out of a museum painting of an ocean rather than photorealistic underwater landscapes.
The game I got instead was not as endless, as the game I assumed it to be based on, but every bit as enjoyable; playing out like an underwater version of the PS3 indie darling Journey aka one of best examples of video games as art. As a matter of fact, a lot of Abzu’s strongest selling points match those of Journey almost exactly: brilliant soundtrack, awe-inspiring visuals with gorgeous colors, beautiful sense of detail, and an entirely minimalistic approach to storytelling. I’d hate to spend the rest of my review comparing Abzu to Journey because that’s a mountain that hardly any game can overcome. I’m well aware that many of my statements could apply to either game if you changed up the details which are due in no small part to the work of Matt Nava, who previously created both Journey and Flower.
Diving into Abzu headfirst is the best way to go and almost right away it shows you almost everything it has to offer graphically, as well as the unsung quality of its controls. As soon I got my head under the water and started swimming (using a trigger to keep my diver stroking through the water, which provided a sense of resistance that felt rather weighty and beautiful), I only wanted to see everything up close. I swam headfirst through massive schools of fish, grabbed hold of a big blue grouper (with the opposite trigger, a la Shadow of the Colossus) and went for a ride, and then started towards the ocean floor where I experienced my first inkling that Abzu wouldn’t be just about roaming around the seas at my leisure. I pressed the square button to “interact” with a bed of coral and to my surprise, released a group of sea turtles into the environment, then made my way over to an object buried in the sand, and was greeted by a small yellow droid that accompanied me on my way.
From that point, I explored, unearthed, and traversed ranged from the darkest depths to unexpected locales. I hobnobbed with anglerfish and goblin sharks, explored abandoned undersea temples, which housed ancient beasts including massive plesiosaurs and, most importantly, alien structures that threaten the livelihood of my diver and the peaceful creatures around me. From that point on, an inkling of suspicion became a clear mission to rid the oceans of the strange and ominous monuments that barred further exploration with massive iron gates and floated dangerously in suspended packs like sea-mines. Of course, there was never the feeling of imminent danger if I chose to explore to my heart’s content before getting down to business to move on. My absolute favorite moment of the whole game was grabbing hold of the shell of an Archelon turtle, snapping a picture for social media, and then when I’d had my fun, getting on with the “press this button, move these levers” type of light puzzle that would allow me to go to the next area.
The only complaint I have about Abzu was the short length. I'm sure that I did not see all that there was to do, knowing how short it was -- maybe four hours if you dilly-dally a lot -- is unfortunate. It’s an exceptional indie game, but also an exceptionally indie game because you know that Giant Squid packed everything they could into the time they gave the project. For all the incredible music, vibrant and intoxicating visuals, and overall sense of satisfaction that fills you at the moment, too much of it feels as though it was left behind once the credits began to roll. Whether this is due to the ending feeling rather abrupt or perhaps the sense that neither myself nor my character had changed, in spite of what may be present in a story, I can’t say for sure. I just can’t get over the fact that I felt the experience had somehow been both satisfying and fleeting all at the same time. Maybe that is just another part of what makes Abzu another great example for the “games as art” argument - enthralling in the very moment it takes place, but when it is over with, leaves as many questions as it answers.