I have always wanted to scuba dive. Numerous opportunities to get certified have presented themselves, I just have never taken the plunge. After playing Abzu, I regretted that decision. Do stunning visuals and a top-notch soundtrack do enough to make Abzu a game of the year contender? Let’s dive in and take a look.
Abzu opens with your character floating in the middle of a large body of water. As you dive, the underwater world is initially a barren and muted mix of blues and greys with no life. After swimming for a brief time, a few fish appear. Those few fish slowly grow and multiply into schools. The environment also begins to change. The greys and blues are still present, but soon begin to fill with the greens and pinks of sea plants, and the vast color palette of the ocean creatures. After just a few minutes, I knew Abzu was going to provide me a similar meditative experience I felt while playing Flower. This comes as no surprise as Giant Squid Studios, the team behind Abzu, was founded by Matt Nava, the Art Director of Flower and Journey.
Visually Abzu is stunning. The game gives you a chance to meditate on specific statues scattered throughout the game. At first I thought this was a bit, well to be honest, silly. The longer I played, however, the longer I stayed at the meditation statues. I wanted to examine all the sea life which was beautifully rendered, colorful, and extremely expressive. I found myself lost in the experience and examining everything I could about my surroundings. Part of the gameplay is activating portals on the ocean floor which release additional fish into your environment. I was seeking them out, trying to increase the diversity of life I could see. The sense of scale in certain sections was incredible, and it helps lend perspective on your character in the game, and in real life. The visual splendor around you is further enhanced by a wonderful score.
Austin Wintory composed another stellar soundtrack. If you do not know him by name, he is the composer of numerous games, including the notable soundtracks of flOw and Journey. The music in this game feels like a character. There is no dialogue in Abzu, and while most games can tell a decent story purely on visuals, the soundtrack lifts the strong visual storytelling here to another level. It is light and fun, pensive and thoughtful, dark and booming at all the right times. While the visuals may be the star for many people, and I agree they are magnificent, I found myself closing my eyes periodically while playing just to let the soundtrack wash over me. It is a special work and if you have the ability to play this game with headphones, I would encourage it.
The visuals and music of Abzu tell a story: a story about searching, loss, and discovering our true self. It was not as emotionally resonate with me as other games in this genre. However, similar to those games, I am not sure I would want to play Abzu again. Not because it is bad, but because the experience is still sitting with me. I mull it over when I have the rare quiet moment and think back to my experience gliding through the water and exploring the depths of the ocean. Is it possible to learn new things, and have a different experience if I played it again? Possibly, but I like the mark the game left on me, and sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone.
Speaking of gliding, the controls in this game are, for the most part, fluid and intuitive as you navigate through the underwater environment. For you inverted fans out there, this is the default setting, and while I do not typically play inverted, I usually have little trouble adapting. In no time I found myself swimming, accelerating, breaching out of the water, and doing flips underwater. With a pull of L2 you can grab on to some larger aquatic animals, and while this often increases speed, it usually does so at a lack of maneuverability. There were a couple spots later in the game where the controls did not always do exactly what I expected. Overall though, the controls allowed me to dive deep into the ocean, confident I would be able to surface without any trouble.
Abzu is a wonderful game. It does not fit the traditional mold, but rather pushes forward the idea that games can be meditative and introspective, that more can be said with less, that a good score and strong art direction can tell a compelling narrative, and that games can be art. If any of that sounds interesting to you, do yourself a favor and check out Abzu.