Every so often you have a chance to play a game that is so unconventional that it really stays with you. Abzu is one of those games. I recently had a chance to play through it, and wanted to write a mini-review.
While there are some elements of conventional gameplay in Abzu (some light puzzle-ing, do this action to open this door, exploration etc.), at its core it feels much more like an exercise in choreography than a video game. You control the diver, whose movements beneath the waves are graceful and symphonic as you explore the ocean depths and essentially dance along with the aquatic life.
There isn’t a lot to do as far as gameplay is concerned, but the overall experience is so engrossing that the sheer simplicity feels as if a balance has been struck. There is a subtlety in the controls that draws you in to the experience; very few buttons to push, very few moves to master. The goal here is to become a part of the world as much as possible, and at times it’s easy to forget that you’re playing a game.
There is a small bit of puzzling to the game, but nothing by any means difficult. Exploration and the overall aesthetic experience is more of the goal here, allowing for a much different encounter that is distinct from almost every other game. To be sure, some games try to evoke this sort of “wander and enjoy the flowers” kind of experience, but Abzu actually delivers on it. You can dive right in (pun vehemently intended!) without any expertise and simply enjoy the experience.
The visuals are sublime, beckoning the diver to explore the richness of this underwater tableau. They are deceptively simple, yet this simplicity is utterly immersive, drawing one’s eyes into this expansive and captivating world. Every so often there is a little “oh, that’s cool!” moment of discovery that adds to the overall richness of the visual experience, and even on the second playthrough there is much more to discover. Now that I know some of what’s coming, I can appreciate the art and partake more fully of this sumptuous visual feast.
The soundtrack is so rich and evocative; at times minimalistic with light ebbs and flows like the call and response of monastic whales, while at other times it pulsates and drives forward as the action carries the diver along in its streams and eddies. Sometimes the interaction of visuals and music is so in harmony that you wish you could experience that sequence of events again.
For example, there is a scene where you are swimming in a swiftly flowing current along with turtles, schools of fish and dolphins, and as the pace quickens you are drawn along towards the surface. The music pulses and moves in rhythm with all these movements, and as you breach the surface (along with frolicking dolphins!) and leap in the air over a small mound of land the music crescendoes in perfect harmony with the animation, visuals, and overall movement. It’s one of those moments that just makes you say: wow!, and is the type of moment that makes any game worthwhile.
The soundtrack is definitely itself worth listening to by itself; I still play it from time to time on Spotify.
Those looking for a story will likely be disappointed, as its narrative framework is loose and intended to be open to interpretation. Most of the “narrative” is depicted in underwater hieroglyphs in long forgotten temples. From what I can gather, the diver is the robotic descendent of a race of ocean builders who brought forth the waters into being and populated them, creating a paradise in which nature and craftsmanship exist in a perfect symbiosis. But some sort of technological menace has polluted the water, primarily in the form of pyramidal proximity mines. You as the Harbinger of the Primordial Host or the Reclaimer of the Subaqueous Forerunner must travel the chantry of this long forgotten mystery cult, cleansing the temples and restoring the chantry to it former and pristine glory, all for the glory (and with the assistance) of the Omnipotent, Unrelenting and most Dread Shark deity.
Who likes to eat your friends.
In all seriousness, the game’s motif is based upon the ancient Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, from which the lyrics to some of the game’s soundtracks are taken. Given that Abzu is the Babylonian fertility deity associated with the primordial deep, the narrative of the game could very well be that the diver is trying to propagate his race, and the journey through the chantry is a means of ceremonially (and perhaps literally) birthing a new world out of the old.
None of that, however, is necessary to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of this title, and there is some enjoyment to be had from imposing one’s own meaning upon the game.
My one criticism of this game is that it is agonizingly short; it is definitely possible to finish this game in an afternoon. This may be perhaps a blessing, in that one does not get a chance to become bored. It also likely enables every scene and sequence to be as tight and well-crafted as each is. However, this is a disappointment to be had when the closing credits roll and you realize it’s over.
But beyond that criticism, this is a well-crafted game that is worth the playthrough and that will leave an impression you.