The Ocean evokes deep emotions in us. It is the most mysterious and foreign place on earth, yet at the same time we all feel our innate subconscious connection to it.–Matt Nava, Creative Director of Giant Squid Studios
Abzu was released back in 2016. Since then it was nominated for 4 different awards including the NAVGTR Award, 3 different times, and winning the International Film Music Critics Award in 2017. ABZÛ is an epic descent into the depths of the sea, where players will explore beautifully rendered ocean environments with fluid swimming controls. The experience draws inspiration from the deep innate narrative that we all carry within our subconscious: the story of ABZÛ is a universal myth that resonates across cultures. The name references a concept from the oldest mythologies; it is the combination of the two ancient words AB, meaning ocean, and ZÛ, meaning to know. ABZÛ is the ocean of wisdom.
Abzu is hands down one of my personal favorite games and I have logged several hours since release, so trying to review the game without my rose-tinted glasses on was no easy task. When you first load up the game, you are met with a beautiful seascape and clouds taking up most of the horizon with the Sun high above them. The music that plays in the background really sets the mood for what is to come. Once you begin the game, you wake up in a large area of the ocean that feels seemingly empty. While the player is swimming around the vast ocean, the player will discover vast beautiful ecosystems and ancient ruins lost to time. These ruins are where the player will discover most of the story. There is not any text or dialogue, so the story as a whole is up for the interpretation of the player.
After swimming around for a short while, you are met by a Goliath Grouper that introduces you to one of the most enjoyable mechanics of the game that lets you swim with marine wildlife. You latch onto the Grouper’s dorsal fin and it takes you through a short tunnel through some kelp stalks and into this vast thriving ecosystem that you would not even know was there without the aid of that fish. With further exploration, the player will discover a small clearing with a little yellow drone at the bottom in a small little pocket. These drones will be located in various areas around the game and are basically the player’s companion throughout the game. When exploring this area, you can find little hidden holes in the ground with small forms of coral growing around it. If you swim up to these formations, you can summon a new species of fish into the current biome you are in such as rays, sharks, and other various marine life. Additionally, you can find these statues of humanoid sharks erected in various locations around the world giving players vantage points to view the fish swimming around their habitat. Players can also “meditate” on these statures and take a third-person view of the animals in the current area, almost like how we watch fish in an aquarium. I’ve spent far too long sitting on these meditation statues just watching fish and listening to the music of the world, oftentimes finding myself lost in the atmosphere.
Abzu has hundreds of different fish species spread throughout the entirety of the game. Some of the species you can swim around with are; Clownfish and Bluetang, (like Marlin and Dory), Lionfish, Mahi-Mahi, Manta Rays, Oceanic Whitetip Sharks and even the gentle giant of the sea, the Whale Shark. The full list of species is far too vast to list every last one, but they can all be found here on the Abzu Wiki. Swimming alongside a pod of dolphins or on the back of a breaching Orca is one of the most amazing experiences this game has to offer. But this mechanic does not come without its flaws. I found trying to latch onto a species of fish can prove quite difficult at times. Certain areas in the game will cause frames to drop and performance to dwindle sometimes making the fish clip into walls while you are holding on to them or force the player to swim into the fish to latch on. Albeit, these issues were very few and far between, there were still fairly prevalent in areas with a large number of particles and fish on screen at once. When playing this game on my Switch, I noticed most frame drops in a certain location where there was a large feeding frenzy going on and towards the end of the game. However, these drops did not impact the enjoyment of the moment enough to harp on them long.
With your little drone buddy found and you’ve explored every nook and cranny of the first location, you are now ready to proceed with your adventure. Before moving to the next location, you swim through a small cave system and there you meet the mysterious supporting character, The Great White Shark. The Shark swims gracefully in front of the diver before scurrying off through the kelp forest. The player then has no choice but to follow after the shark through the cave system. As you traverse through the cave, the player may notice a change on scenery and the atmosphere changes drastically. Where it was happy and alive moments ago, it is not dark and bleak and the area is void of life, except for a single tower in the center of the cave with a blue light shining from the roof. As the player swims closer to this building, you will notice the top of the roof seems to be some kind of portal and when you swim into the portal you arrive at a mysterious temple with strange luminous towers in the distance. These strange towers are the objective of the game. The player must travel around the ocean in search of these towers to revive the ecosystems that have since died. After the tower is activated the player is forced back out into the real world and the world will begin to fill with this strange liquid and the area will come back to life and rare previously perished species will begin to repopulate the location once again.
After feeling good about yourself for reviving a dead ecosystem, you travel through a large gate into an old ancient ruin left from a civilization from before. While the player explores these ruins, the player will notice paintings and images on the walls. these ruins and the images along the walls is how the players will discover the beautiful story of Abzu. As mentioned before, there is no text or dialogue to tell the player the story, every bit of the lore is interpreted by the player themselves. When playing through the game the first time, I had a lot of questions about the story that really was not answered until I played through it once more. Where some players may find this as a turn-off, I for one enjoyed being able to play the game a second time knowing there was so much more to discover than before.
For the most part, the game rinses and repeats itself after this. You travel to a new location, you revive a dead ecosystem and you explore a new ruin and solve the occasional puzzle. As linear as the game may be, I never once got tired of the repetitiveness. The character controls very satisfyingly. Something that Giant Squid does very well is making the player feel like they are gliding through the air, or in this case the water. Swimming through strong currents attached to the fin of an Orca only to breach out of the water with them feels very natural. You can even curl up into a ball and spin around and just kind of drift a little bit and as silly as that may be, it’s still fluid and satisfying. Giant Squid made it an effort to let the player move exactly how they imaged, and I for one applaud their efforts.
Much later into the game, you start to develop more and more of the plot. You discover who you, the diver, are and where you came from. Granted, all of these discoveries are not told you, it is information you must piece together yourself and because of this, this information can be overlooked. You glide around this strange ruined facility that was clearly man-made, trying to avoid live mines while strange robotic fish swim about. As you traverse this facility, you arrive at a large opening with what seems to be some sort of power source, in this room you meet up with your Shark bro again, I will not spoil the events that occur after, if you want to know what happens, play the game.
After the events that take place in the broken-down facility, you find yourself in yet another cave system. Following this cave system, you will end up in another ruin, however, this ruin is much different than the others before. This ruin you discover appears to be a lost city of the civilization that was here before. Once on land, the music and the atmosphere changes almost instantly and for me personally it was probably my favorite part of this game. Though the game is based underwater, it is funny that I found the most enjoyable part to be above land. But exploring this city is far too much fun, the music the atmosphere, everything is just perfect! Be sure to explore every corner of this city, there is a lot to see and a lot of species to unlock and swim around with. Such as the Helicoprion shark, Trilobite, Tiktaalik, Diplocaulus and many more.
I’ve been talking about swimming with fish for a lot in this article and I want to talk about one of Abzu’s greatest elements, the music. The Composer, Austin Wintory who is the same composer of the game Journey, really managed to design a truly beautiful soundtrack for this game. Abzu’s soundtrack is mysterious, mystical, exciting, lively and at times ominous. From the very moment of the game you are met with harmonious choirs, stringed instruments and beautiful percussion melodies which play along with the story and evokes just the right amount of emotion at every turn. Even Wintory’s decision to not add music in certain locations, like when swimming in the darker more ominous sections of the ocean, is a genius idea. The music fades out and Wintory lets the atmosphere of the game take over and you can hear the sound of the ocean and monsters that may be lurking in the darkness, and moments later the music picks up again keeping the same ominous feel.
Abzu was released August 2nd, 2016 by the company Giant Squid and was published by 505 Games. The game is available on all platforms, but I would strongly suggest that if you have a powerful enough computer that can play this game on max settings, to do just that. You can easily complete Abuz in about 2 – 3 hours, but doing so does the game a huge injustice. This game is an outstanding masterpiece that has a beautifully composed soundtrack and an amazing back story that is up to the player to decipher. The game is not without it’s few glitches and issues, but they are so few and far between and not present enough to make a major impact on the experience. All in all, I would strongly suggest Abzu to any players who enjoy an open-world exploration game or for anyone who loved Journey or even Flower. So strap on some flippers and get ready to swim around with dolphins and sharks and dive into the beautiful world of Abzu!