Plenty of games throw the player in at the deep end, expecting them to figure everything out as they go along. Abzu is one of the few games that do so literally.
It is an undersea exploration game with very little in the way of exposition, traditional story, or even gameplay mechanics. After a very short tutorial, where you press a total of 4 buttons, you’re left to experience the game all on your own, with “experience” being the key word here.
Abzu is a serene, peaceful, and quiet experience, akin to games like Flower and Journey. That is no coincidence, as Abzu’s creative director, Matt Nava, was previously the art director on both games. When playing and reviewing Abzu, the comparison to Journey is inevitable, as the two games are strikingly similar. In both, you play a faceless, chirping, vaguely female character, and both see that character undertaking, well, a journey where we learn more about them and the world they inhabit.
Unfortunately for Abzu, being compared to Journey doesn’t do it any good, as it isn’t as compelling or as interesting. It is, however, a beautiful adventure that fans of Journey and exploration will undoubtedly love.
More than anything else, it is the visuals that keep you going through this adventure. The underwater environments are absolutely stunning, and every time you enter a new area, you spend the first 10 minutes just swimming around, looking at colorful fish with almost child-like wonder. There are even certain spots for your character to sit and meditate, which allows you to get a closer look at the sea life in the area, and appreciate the game’s art design.
I was actually excited every time I spotted a new kind of animal I haven’t seen so far, like a dolphin, a lionfish, or a huge whale. Any game that can make a grown man shout “Wow! A hammerhead!” in an empty living room is a game with a great atmosphere.
Abzu owes its great atmosphere to its haunting soundtrack. Thanks to it, each scenery has an entirely new vibe that suits it perfectly. Whether it’s the whimsical cheerfulness of the shallow reefs or the crushing loneliness of the abyss, these emotions are only intensified by the music. The fact that most of the time you hardly notice the soundtrack serves to show how well-integrated it is into the whole game. It becomes what you expect to hear when you’re underwater.
When you’re not too busy with going “ooh” and “aah” at shimmering schools of fish or getting swept up by the fantastic musical score, you start to wonder about the diver you are playing. In the beginning, you know nothing about her, as she appears to simply be a vessel through which you can explore the underwater environments. However, as you progress deeper and deeper into the murky depths, you start to piece together her origins and how she’s connected to the ruins that litter the ocean floor.
Just like Journey, Abzu is more about exploration and atmosphere than narrative, and it is up to the player to inject meaning into the discoveries they make along the way.
Unlike Journey, Abzu’s story doesn’t offer many reasons to come back and experience it a second time. There’s no co-op, and the game will basically be the same each time you play it, so apart from going back for a few collectibles or trophies, there’s no reason to do so.
Speaking of the lack of co-op, Abzu can feel a little lonely at times, especially at the later levels. This loneliness is undoubtedly a part of the game’s design, but it would have been nice to encounter other divers at certain points in the game.
But the game’s biggest issue, and the one that will probably drive most gamers away, is the lack of meaningful gameplay. Abzu is something you experience more than something you play. Mostly, you feel like you are being carried away by the currents (which happens quite literally a few times) and have no real effect on the world around you. It’s still fun to ride on the back of dolphins and make them jump out of the water, or swim inside a cloud of brightly colored fish, but some players won’t appreciate the game’s lack of agency.
Abzu is a short, one-time experience for those who love that unique genre it shares with Journey. The beautiful visuals and enchanting music are enough to suck you into an underwater world you wish you could explore forever. The story is just enough to create both a sense of mystery and even accomplishment when the adventure comes to an end, but the actual gameplay leaves a lot to be desired.
You will either be compelled to dive deeper and deeper into Abzu or dip a toe in before getting out, never to return.Some of our posts include links to online retail stores. We get a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Don't worry, it doesn't cost you anything extra.