It’s pretty much impossible to talk about Abzû without referencing its relation to its spiritual predecessor, Journey. After all, Abzû’s development at Giant Squid Studios was led by Flower and Journey art director Matt Nava while Austin Wintory lends his composing talents to the soundtrack. Alongside this surface-level audiovisual kinship, Abzû also aims to capture a calm, reflective, mood-driven experience. It’s designed to soothe you and move you. It does not squander its lineage.
Abzû’s central premise is simple. You’re a diver delving into the depths of the ocean to explore underwater ruins, gradually learning more about the history of the beings that inhabited the place. “Journey, but underwater” would not be an inaccurate summary of proceedings.
Swimming is a simple affair (which is good, because it’s your primary action within the game): propel yourself forwards, and adjust pitch and yaw with your left stick. My biggest worry going into Abzû was whether the swimming controls would handle well, since the near-ubiquitously limited manoeuvrability of games’ swimming controls are a pet hate of mine. However, Abzû controls pretty well after a couple of minutes’ adjustment; turning is pleasingly sharp without feeling unrealistic, and you’re fast enough to take the game at your own pace without feeling restricted.
Abzû’s greater sense of freedom afforded by six degrees of movement is paired with a mechanical lightness even more pronounced than Journey’s to create an experience that’s more committed to calm, challenge-free play than the latter. You solve the lightest of environmental puzzles in order to progress to each new area, but these are never more complex than “find the object that opens the door”. There’s no fail-state at any stage of the game: the harshest punishment the game has to offer is a light slap of the wrist for brushing too close to mines later on, but it’s one of the least severe penalties I’ve seen since you regain full mobility almost immediately.
While Journey was a 3D platformer, Abzû is more closely related to walking simulators. It’s possible that the genre’s increasing popularity over the last couple of years, with big names like Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and of course Gone Home, having paved the way for Giant Squid to develop such an easygoing video game free of friction to focus on mood and atmosphere.
While Abzû is irrefutably a kindred soul to Journey, it’s got an emotional core all of it’s own. Journey was set up as a lonely, solemn pilgrimage through sprawling plains of sand and vast, crumbling monuments to an ancient civilization. That’s why that game hangs on your partnership with other players: by yourself Journey is for the most part an isolated affair of quiet reverence, but add another player and you cling to each others’ presence to help each other through in both a practical and emotional sense. That initial sense of isolation melts away when you spot a companion on the horizon and rush towards them, greeting them with a stream of musical sounds.
Abzû is a world apart. Most prominent is the focus on interacting with all manner of sea life; you brush fins with a massive amount of aquatic creatures, never far from company. There’s a mechanic where you latch onto and “ride” the larger specimens, serenely gliding along in pleasant symbiosis. Schools of fish will swirl around you, sometimes joining you for a short while before breaking away to flit along their own paths. Various meditation stones sprinkled amongst the larger locales allow you to observe individual fish carry out their lives in fairly realistic, if slightly squashed, ecosystems. You’re constantly unveiling and freeing fish from underwater “pools”, adding to the already-booming population of the game’s areas.
Your positive, friendly relationship with sea life in Abzû is the emotional lynchpin of the playful, carefree atmosphere of the game. There is a sense of duty to your actions in a similar vein to Journey, but your pilgrimage is coloured with more of a relaxed, stop-and-smell-the-flowers (seaweed?) vibe. You’re compelled to travel the depths and improve their ecological variation as you go, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun while you’re at it. Austin Wintory’s soundtrack underlines this distinction perfectly, his trademark stirring compositions lighter here with lively melodies. The symbiosis between gameplay and soundtrack is so strong that at times, Abzû almost feels like a playable album.
Equally important to the atmosphere of Abzû are its stunning visuals. Yet again, Matt Nava’s art direction drew me in almost effortlessly: a dizzyingly vibrant and varied colour palette lends Abzû’s environments a brilliant sense of energy. Level layouts packed with detail enforce the game’s subtle visual storytelling as you discover more about this world beneath the waves. The models of the diver and sea life alike use a simplistic, geometrical style that easily differentiates each species (Abzû seems to have a deep respect for marine biology, highlighting the name of each encountered animal) and meshes pleasingly with the overall art style. Put simply, Abzû is splendidly easy on the eyes.
Abzû doesn’t run for very long (around two to three hours depending on how sedately you want to proceed), but that runtime isn’t wasted. This game is not to be rushed, but savoured. Take joy in connecting with and observing sea life. Thrill at the breathtaking current-riding sections that mirror the same ecstatic freedom found in Journey’s sparse moments of speed. The first time I encountered a whale I was transfixed. A little bit scared, even; the dwarfing scale of the creature sent shivers down my spine as I processed its presence. This game is all about the full range of emotional release: from the simple joy of hitching a ride on a Manta Ray to the whooping delight that is blitzing through the water at breakneck speed alongside schools upon schools of fish. Abzû excels in not just the serene, but the fantastic.
Ultimately Abzû’s greatest strength doubles as its biggest weakness: you get out of it what you put in. Players willing to dawdle around to drink in the gorgeously presented scenery and atmosphere will find a tranquil, enriching, rewarding experience driven by curiosity and wonder. Those who require challenge or prefer conventional storytelling, however, might find Abzû a shallow frustration. And I wouldn’t blame them. Still, fans of Journey will find a worthy spiritual successor in Abzû. It’s quite unlike anything else, and communicates the unmatched majesty of the ocean like no other art.