Reviews// ABZU

Posted 2 Aug 2016 15:52 by
As far as modern science can tell we came from the sea. Eons ago our ancestors left the salt water cradle and began the struggle to live on land. Some believe that this is why we, as a species, are drawn to the oceans, the salt in our blood calls to the salt of our planet's vast bodies of water.

ABZU, Sumerian for Ocean (Ab) Deep (zu), tells the tale of a mysterious diver exploring a primordial ocean full of life and endless, almost relentless, beauty.

Starting in the shallows of pristine blue water, only a few scattered shoals of fish to indicate the presence of life, I swim towards a larger fish that shows no fear of me. As I place a hand upon its back it moves me through a short tunnel and into a world of kelp forests and abundant life.

Along the sandy bottom I encounter something that looks out of place - a small yellow and black drone that responds to my appearance and with a short ping of sound it joins me. Soon I have a small swarm of them propelling around me and the feeling of loneliness that had nestled at the back of my mind is abated.

Further investigation revealed a strange formation on the ocean floor. Another little blip of noise, the way ABZU enables you to interact with its environments, triggers a portal-like effect and a new species of marine creature is added to the already diverse ecosystem. In this area we also come across a statue that prompts me to 'meditate'. My little diver manoeuvres into a cross-legged sitting position and following the on-screen instructions we can examine the various creatures around us up close.

Moving on we find out why we need the friendly little drones. They can cut a way through certain materials blocking my path so that we can advance, straight in to the jaws of a great white shark. It destroys one of our drones and swims off and beyond is a sight that gives me pause. Looming in the distance, shrouded by the ocean's gloom is a clearly mechanical aperture. Its sharp angles and uninterrupted lines are at odds with the natural surroundings and the fluid motions of both the diver and the creatures we share the waters with. This is far more alien than our drones or even the character I control. Approaching it we are prompted to interact with it... and that is as far as I'm going to describe the narrative of ABZU.

Developer Giant Squid, a small team lead by Matt Nava (the art director behind TGC's Journey), have crafted something simple in its aesthetic. Clean textures and models with bold lines are beautifully rendered with otherworldly lighting. Natural animation that is both graceful and precise reflects the ways in which real marine creatures move.

Every movement has an elegance that may not be initially apparent. Upon starting the game I found that the movement controls were not to my liking and I struggled to orientate both the diver and the camera. I paused the game out of frustration and was instantly greeted with three different options for changing the movement controls - you can invert the camera, swimming pitch and swimming yaw. After a few minutes fiddling around with these settings I found an arrangement that worked for me. Thankfully this happened in the very first area which has zero distractions and allowed me time to acclimate.

Ten minutes later I had forgotten that whole ordeal as I discovered how to effectively boost and propel myself out of the water with a little backwards arching flip. This was the first moment the game made me grin. Once you have the controls down there is an almost unbridled joy surrounding movement. The avatar moves in such a way that everything feels natural and before long I found myself lost in a deep contentment as I explored the first open area of the game.

ABZU's story is told through its environments, as well as murals on the walls of certain structures. There is no spoken dialogue and because of this the story is open to interpretation. We've seen this before in another game and so I must address the sand-surfing elephant in the room, Journey. Comparisons are likely (and fairly) going to be drawn between these two games and whilst the setting couldn't be any more different there is a shared feeling of pilgrimage, or a journey not just through a landscape, but also through emotion and understanding.

The visuals and gameplay of both games represent two different bodies, but they share a soul in the form of music from Austin Wintory. ABZU's music is utterly phenomenal; it gently echoes the joy of moving through crystal clear water, thrills and cascades through swift ocean currents carrying you along both physically and emotionally. To call what Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory does for videogame soundtracks beyond comparison is an understatement. Very rarely does music in any medium reach this level of excellence and he does it consistently across all of his projects. When starting this game I recommend putting on your most comfortable headphones, cranking up the volume one or two notches higher than usual and turning off the lights to maximise immersion.

ABZU is a short game. My first play-through took around six hours mainly because I fell in love with the act of swimming through each environment, exploring to the fullest, although sometimes the urgency of the music and my surroundings would cause me to move through a section faster than I would have preferred. Such is the power of immersion this game brings to bear.

The only break in this comes in the form of strangely long loading times that feature a black screen, but ultimately this doesn't detract from the emotional rollercoaster that Giant Squid presents here. There are countless moments I wish I could share with you, but to reveal more would be to take away from this beautiful work of art. I can't wait for more people to play this so that I can talk about the deeper aspects of ABZU.

Pros:
+ Subtle, yet powerful story
+ Stunning art direction
+ Graceful character animation
+ Austin Wintory's music

Cons:
- None, nothing that detracts from the game.

SPOnG Score: 10/10
Companies:
Games: ABZ█

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