Abzû is a game without a real story, without any real challenge or even any real gameplay. And still it’s a game that – in my opinion – everyone should play at least once.
03-08-2016 - by Thijs Kaagman
How can you create a game that lacks most of the key elements that make something a game? Leave that to Matt Nava. After being an art director on Flower and Journey, he started his own studio Giant Squid Studios and their first game is Abzû. As you’d expect from a company called Giant Squid, the game completely takes place in the ocean. You’re a mysterious diver and… Well, you swim.
Abzû quite literally throws you in the deep. You wake up in the middle of the ocean, so you start swimming. The game instructs you to dive underwater and from that moment on you’ll spend almost the entire game below the surface.
Controls are simple; press R2 to swim (or dive, when you’re at the surface) and use the analog sticks to move around or move the camera, while the O-button (on the PS4) sends out little sonic pulses. And the gameplay itself isn’t very hard either. There’s a few little robots lying around that you can activate to help you open doors and there’s some shells to pick up and collect, but that’s about it. Oh, and you can grab a dolphin’s fin and let him pull you through the water, which is awesome.
There’s not much to the story either. Some of it is told through the environment; much like Journey, there’s paintings on the wall to provide a bit of context, albeit very abstract.
But none of that matters.
Because like its spiritual predecessor Journey, Abzû takes you on a journey. And like with any decent journey, your purpose should not really be reaching your destination. Abzû should be about discovery, about finding out what’s behind that next corner instead of what is waiting at the end. You can reach that end in an hour or 2, if you really want to. But you shouldn’t. This is a game that you play to relax and wind down; to enjoy the beautiful and lush environments that Giant Squid has created.
To emphasize this element of the game, there’s a statues littered around the world where you can meditate. This will make the camera float around in the environment, supported by the amazing soundtrack by Austin Wintory. That soundtrack is as much part of the experience of Abzû as the story or gameplay is, maybe even more. At times it’s soothing and relaxing, only speeding up and growing more exciting when your diver gets caught in a current. Other times it’s dark and brooding, creating a sense of danger even though you never really are.
And that might just be Abzû’s weakest point. Journey starts out as carefree as Abzû does, but eventually there’s some real danger. Your nameless character can actually die, if you’re not careful. And that’s not the case in Abzû, where your most dangerous enemies are floating triangular mines. These explode when you come too close, but they don’t do anything besides temporarily slowing you down. It’s more a hindrance than a threat, really.
Nonetheless, Abzû is a beautiful experience. There’s moments that will have you on the edge of your seat, racing through coral reefs or breaking the surface like a dolphin, but there’s also moments that will leave you speechless. But most of all, Abzû is about relaxing and enjoying a game without worrying about highscores, lives or gear. Just relax.