To say that Abzu from Giant Squid has much in common with Thatgamecompany’s Journey would be an understatement. Abzu feels like an extension of the groundwork laid by Journey, using much of the same storytelling techniques and even some of the same themes in such a way that make Abzu feel like a spiritual successor. But for all the similarities, Abzu isn’t a mere underwater version of Journey. It’s very much its own thing, and it’s the ways Abzu differs that make it special.
Abzu follows a diver on an expedition to the very depths of the ocean as she follows the traces of an ancient civilization to uncover its mysteries. It begins with the diver lying face-first in the water unconscious. How she ended up there is never hinted at or answered (though I have my theories). The storytelling remains minimal throughout. Hieroglyphics serve as your sole window into the workings of this world, often hinting at the origins of the mystic and technological aspects of the ruins, and sometimes outright unraveling some of those mysteries. But even though it provides a few hard facts, it never tells you everything, never provides full context. It’s specifically crafted to be open to interpretation, leaving just enough room to fill in the blanks however you see fit.
When she wakes, the game begins. You’re instantly given control and left to wander. You have no immediate directive, goals, or objectives; it’s just you and the ocean. Like the diver, you’re left to figure out your purpose here for yourself. The game never pushes you forward, always allowing you to move at your own pace.
Abzu wants you to take it slow; to kick back and explore, enjoy the sights, play with the wildlife, maybe sit and meditate for a while. It’s very relaxing. From the beautiful, vibrant sights to the ethereal soundtrack, every moment is permeated by a sense of tranquility. I always found myself drifting aimlessly around each new space I entered. Even after I’d found everything there was to find, seen all there was to see, I’d stick around for a while and just enjoy the calm atmosphere. Where most games focus on pressing onward, urging you to continue moving forward through objective markers or quips from your companions, Abzu focuses on taking it easy and living in the moment.
There is, of course, work to be done. The ultimate goal of each zone is to restore life and color to the area. During your travels, you come across clearings that are dull and gray. Not a trace of life can be found in these spaces, the large strands of kelp lining the walls having withered away, and the fish sealed away. You restore them by diving into a small pool atop a stone structure that transports the diver to a mystical plane. By giving a piece of herself to the shrines at the far ends of this plane, the world comes alive once more. What were once drab, lifeless caverns turn into bustling, radiant spaces. Dead plants are restored to their healthy, colorful selves. Large sea creatures like orca and manta rays materialize from nothing as an underwater lake fills the basin below the stone structure, a massive coral column rising from its peak.
Watching these spaces come back to life are some of the most breathtaking scenes from Abzu. The transformation from dark, dull, and lifeless to bright, vibrant, and lively never ceases to enthrall. I’ve always had a soft spot for games that focus on restoration. That it’s such a big part of Abzu was a pleasant surprise.
The game quickly settles into a comfortable rhythm of quiet exploration punctuated by the occasional rush of being carried along the current. These scenes are some of Abzu’s most exhilarating. As you swim into the current, the music shifts from its usual languid tone to become more active, schools of fish of every size joining you as you all plunge forward to your destination, picking up speed with each cluster of fish you pass through, watching the variety of sights zoom by along the way. It’s almost a shame that you can only speed through these areas, catching only a glimpse of them as you pass by, rather than explore them in full. But these sequences are also so much fun to partake in that it’s a fine trade-off.
Abzu’s most memorable moments almost always involve interacting directly with the wildlife. Joining a group of dolphins leaping out of the water, for instance, or merely swimming alongside whales as you descend to the very bottom of the ocean. These small, playful moments are meaningful in how they illustrate the connection the diver has to the ocean. But more to the point, they’re just a nice addition. Most of them aren’t scripted either, but rather something you discover naturally through play. Most of the wildlife quietly follows you around, moving in sync with you each time you boost before swiftly retreating. Some even let you grab on and take you around on a tour, a fine way to look upon a newly rejuvenated space.
The diver’s connection with the fish becomes a central part of the narrative over time, their place in this world serving an interesting role. Like Journey, Abzu conveys narrative not through words but visuals and music. The hieroglyphics act as exposition, while play furthers the story along in collaboration with the music. Austin Wintory’s moving, ethereal score is a constant soothing presence. It generally serves as a calming undercurrent as you drift around, driving home the serenity of every locale, but it when it comes time for a revelation or a brief burst of tension, it delivers in spades.
As the end approached, I was met with mixed emotions. On one hand, I was glad the end was in sight. But on the other, I was sad it was over. I didn’t want Abzu to end. Every second I spent immersed in its fantastical underwater world was a joy. I wanted it to last as long as possible, spending every moment I could basking in its harmony. But as much I wanted more, I’m satisfied with what I got. Abzu is a wonderful experience, and one of the finest games of 2016.