Ask anyone who’s played a ton of videogames what one of the worst kinds of levels are and most will probably respond with underwater segments. For whatever reason, few games manage to make the act of swimming enjoyable. Whether its awkward controls, poor level design, or some combination thereof, they seldom turn out well. Abzu from developer Giant Squid, however, practically perfects it. Right from the get-go, the game feels good. Movement is a breeze and easy to work with. It’s fluid and snappy, allowing you to quickly get around and without hassle.
But what is Abzu? It’s an underwater exploration game wherein you descend to depths of the ocean while investigating the ruins of an ancient civilization. It feels very reminiscent of Thatgamecompany’s Journey, which isn’t surprising given that Matt Nava and Austin Wintory – Journey’s art director and composer, respectively – are both working on Abzu. The two games couldn’t be further apart in terms of setting and tone, but Journey’s influence can still be felt, particularly around its more mystical elements.
The demo starts just outside a cavern. Inside I needed to find a couple of drones that would help me bypass a wall of coral blocking the way forward. The cavern was filled with plants and clusters of fish steadily making circuits around the area. I think I spent a few good minutes just slowly drifting through here, taking in the sights and swimming alongside the fish. It was very calm and relaxing. Even amid the noise and lights of the E3 show floor it was hard not to be lulled into a peaceful state of mind. Between the lovely music and the tranquil pace of exploration, it’s hard not to be entranced by it all.
In the next area things got interesting. The cavern opened up into a large clearing, statues adorning the walls. Swimming up to one and settling in for a bit of meditation. Doing so shifts the camera away from the diver and zooms in for a close look at the many types of fish in the area, The main attraction, however, was the undersea lake in the center. They’re actually a natural occurrence in the real world, but in Abzu, this one acted as a portal of sorts to an ethereal plane. The diver’s form was consumed by white light, distant sculptures in the distance casting that same light. Delving deep into the core of this area bestowed an upgrade on the diver, in this case longer fins that allowed me to swim faster.
The next stop led through a small tunnel with some hieroglyphics imprinted upon its walls. They were simple – just a few humanoid-figures lined up – but fascinating all the same. From there, it was back into open water. Immediately a shark zooms by, taking out one of the drones in the process, before retreating back into the depths. With that bit of danger looming over me, I moved forward. The rock formations ahead guided the way, each shaped like makeshift gates. At the end stood a massive metal door embedded straight into the landmass. I only get a few seconds to examine it before it opens and the diver heads inside. The screen fades to black during this, thus ending the demo.
Abzu is out on PlayStation 4 and PC on August 2.