Abzu, review: Forget No Man’s Sky, this is the intriguing aquatic indie game you need to be playing

From the art director of Journey and Flower

Sam Gill
Thursday 18 August 2016 09:54
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With this month finally seeing the release of No Man’s Sky, in which players can investigate and explore a huge universe full of diverse planets, I couldn’t help but be reminded that although outer space has always held a fascination for many, there’s another largely unexplored area much closer to home – the ocean.

Although water makes up about 70% of Earth’s surface, it is estimated that humans have only explored around 5% of the seabed. Aquatic legends such as Atlantis, the Bermuda triangle, and the disappearance of the USS Scorpion in 1968 have captured the imaginations of many a budding oceanographer, and as such the depths of the sea are an unknown region still ripe for mythologizing – which is exactly what Abzu does, in the first release from Giant Squid software.

The very name of the game references ancient Sumerian mythologies, the name combining ‘Ab’, meaning ‘ocean’, and ‘Zu’ meaning ‘deep’. Directed by Matt Nava, who worked as art director on Journey and Flower for thatgamecompany, the style is instantly reminiscent of his previous work, with players taking control of a stylised ‘Diver’ character. Dropped into the ocean with little explanation, the first thing you notice is how - no matter how long you spend underwater - there’s no air gauge to run out.

This absence or reduction of traditional gaming systems is apparent throughout the game and references back to the likes of Journey or The Unfinished Swan, but also recent releases like Bound, where the narrative threads are similarly oblique. Here the ambience is as much the experience as the playing – indeed, scattered throughout Abzu’s beautifully rendered underwater environments there are several stone statues, where players can sit and meditate. In these meditation breaks, players choose which fish they wish to follow, and the camera will swoop in and allow you to use the game as a virtual interactive fishtank.

That’s not to say there’s absolutely no narrative, as diving deeper into the deep blue waters, a story does begin to emerge, based on the Diver’s contact with a Great White Shark, and pieces of what appears to be alien technology strewn across the seabed. But it unravels so enigmatically that it remains in soft focus compared to the dazzling marine life on display.

Here the wonders of the game don’t come from getting level 30 armour, or crafting a new weapon more powerful than a nuclear bomb – it’s the simple discoveries, like the first time you realise you can cling to the larger species of fish and ride them, or weaving between a forest of bright pink reeds to emerge into a sunlit cavern populated with thousands of varieties of sea life. There are rather cute drone sidekicks who prevent the feeling of loneliness setting in, providing a dance partner as you twirl and twist through the water.

There are times when you encounter swordfish and sharks taking advantage of their prey, which then form a bait ball to defend themselves. I personally found this section of Abzu to be my favourite, the sheer overwhelming numbers of fish appearing on screen as tens of thousands of individually animated mackerel frantically churn in a pulsating sphere. Swimming into the ‘eye’ of the bait ball and watching the movement around you is a breath-taking moment in the game. Other highlights include the rushes through sections with a strong current, as you steer past shoals of clownfish, and the aforementioned encounters with the Great White Shark, who takes a particular dislike to your silent drone sidekicks.

The meditative atmosphere is enhanced by a gorgeous soundtrack from Journey composer Austin Wintory, full of harps and ghostly choirs which provide a dynamic response to the movements on screen. Hitching a ride on a humpback whale and performing acrobatic leaps out of the sea to the strains of a surging string section is another memorable moment.

Having played through Abzu several times already, I still find it an incredibly refreshing experience, and one that seems relatively new. With the plethora of space based games available, it's a wonder that the other great unknown has historically been a much rarer proposition in gaming - Ecco the Dolphin, of course, has a special place in gaming hearts of a certain vintage, but comparably, the deep has remained rather underutilised. The Endless Ocean games on the Wii pointed the direction these titles could take, and it feels like Abzu has borne the fruits of these labours by compiling and expanding upon the previous best efforts.

That’s not to say Abzu is without potential for further expansion – one small complaint with the game is the lack of true darkness – there are very few sections where you reach the oil-black depths we saw in documentaries such as Blue Planet, where paper-thin organisms glow like neon signs, in the absence of any natural light. The tone of Abzu generally stays on the lighter side of things, and you can frequently break the ocean’s surface for a look at the sky. At one point in the game, I emerged from the water and found myself gazing at what seemed to be a cityscape in the clouds, and wondered what purpose it may serve. Perhaps it is a clue for a future Giant Squid game? Or just another mystery to add to the intriguing aquatic world of Abzu.

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