By Riley MacLeod
The ocean can be a difficult setting for games. Some, like SOMA or Depth, embrace the horror of the unexplored, while others, like Subnautica, emphasise the survival aspects of being underwater. But Abzu, Giant Squid’s new game for the PC and PS4, frames the ocean’s unknown depths as a place of life, beauty, and discovery.
Abzu has several team members from Journey, and this lineage shows. The player is cast as a nameless diver exploring a vast ocean. There’s a mystery to be solved, but it’s presented in light suggestions rather than as a central plot. There’s not much I can say without spoiling anything, but the plot appears to be loosely based on the Babylonian creation myth in the Enûma Eliš, the words of which are featured in Abzu’s soundtrack. There are vague gestures toward the myth’s exploration of life and death and the conflict between fresh water and the ocean, but whatever loose form the story takes is mostly backdrop to Abzu’s brightly-colored world and the pleasures of moving through it.
You spend most of your time in Abzu simply swimming around, taking in the sights. The visuals are stylised but simultaneously realistic, especially in the rendering of Abzu’s abundant ocean life. Giant Squid has gone out of their way to model the diversity of the sea, and the game has a wonderful sense of life and scale. There are huge whales, darting schools of tiny anchovies, and lobsters and octopuses crawling around the darkened depths of the sea floor. There are also more mystical sections, peppered with hulking, spectral sea life. I spent most of my four hours with the game just diving around looking at fish, aided by the game’s meditation mode, which swaps from third-person controls to a first-person spectator view. You can navigate from one kind of fish to another, watching them explore, mill about, and occasionally eat each other.
Entering meditation mode is one of the game’s few actions besides swimming. There are occasional light puzzles to solve in order to open gates to progress, but that’s more or less the only essential function in the game. (A controller is strongly recommended if you’re playing on PC, and I didn’t even attempt to use my keyboard.) You can ride fish and other sea life, find secrets in the forms of underground fissures and hidden nautilus shells, and enter the above-mentioned meditation mode by sitting atop shark statues that pepper the world. Certain sequences are more scripted, moving you through areas via a current in which you can only move up and down.
You can also interact with a little robot companion, who is necessary to unblock certain areas. (Why exactly you’re a diver with a robot is part of the game’s core mystery.) Pressing a button makes your character call to the robot, who makes a sound in return, but I couldn’t figure out exactly why I’d want to do this. Some experimentation suggested the robot echoes the sounds you make, while at other times I thought it might be leading me to secrets or spots I could interact with. All of Abzu is shrouded in mystery, but the mystery of what your controls do and why is less satisfying than the general mystery of wondering what’s around the corner.
Though Abzu clearly wants to employ a light touch, the minimalism works against it at times. Many of the plot’s bigger points feel like they happen out of the player’s hands, and when the game built to its emotional crescendo I couldn’t help but feel a little at a loss, not sure what was going on and what my role in it had been. Not having a plot spoonfed to you is fine, of course, but the sparseness of Abzu’s interactions left me feeling a little left out of what was happening around me. The game’s end, though visually and musically gorgeous, felt like it wanted to be a bigger emotional payoff than it was given how little I felt like I’d actually done.
Abzu is a lovely, pleasant game, one well worth experiencing for yourself. It unfolds in unexpected directions, a relaxing exploration in a beautiful and mysterious world.