Review: Abyss (DSiWare)

Fun but lacking depth

Abyss is almost an archetypically simple game. There are no modes, power-ups, online features or options, and every face button performs the same action. The premise is correspondingly uncomplicated: as the charmingly named deep-sea submarine “Nep2no”, you'll float through close-quartered underwater stages, avoiding the walls and collecting six glowing “Gaia stones” before heading to the exit. It's really as simple as that, but tight controls and a wonderful deep-sea ambiance turn this concept into a distinctly enjoyable DSiWare title.

Your cyclopean submarine controls similarly to the helium-borne hero of Balloon Fight in that light, skillful taps on the throttle are needed to maneuver delicately around the levels. The face buttons accelerate Nep2no in the direction it's facing, and the D-pad or shoulder buttons rotate the sub. Holding down the accelerator will send you flying dangerously fast very quickly, and since the game is all about guiding your craft safely around the ocean, mastering the flutter-press is key. Luckily, everything's very responsive and swinging Nep2no in and out of harm's way feels great.

The levels are well designed and perfect in length – large enough to feel like you're exploring a bit, but small enough that you can keep track of where you've been. Each mission takes just a minute or two to complete, making Abyss well suited for quick dive sessions. Later levels add both gently floating environmental hazards and some nice visual variety, but also seem to take the focus away from exploring and encourage more linear play.

Atmosphere can make a huge difference in a game, as is the case here. It's something that Abyss really gets right, due in large part to the excellent music. There are only a handful of background tracks, but they set exactly the right tone for your underwater exploration. It's relaxing, understated, and evokes both electronic and organic sources of inspiration.

The visual presentation isn't going to blow you away, but then that wouldn't be in keeping with Abyss' style; while they're not technically impressive, the graphics are atmospheric, with lots of soft blues and seagreens to make you feel like you're exploring the depths of the ocean. There are some unexpected touches too: every mission starts by zooming out from Nep2no's single eye, which sounds odd but goes a long way towards endearing you to the little submarine. Similarly, the ring of light emanating from Nep2no, which diminishes with time and is recharged by collected Gaia stones, is a really nice effect. The relative power of the light can make the ocean feel barren or hospitable from moment to moment, and adds a lot to the aesthetic.

Since there aren't any time limits, and Nep2no's light will dim but never fully expire, Abyss can be quite a relaxing game. For those divers looking to play for keeps, however, it saves the eight best times for each mission, and lets you initial them for bragging rights. Beating your best times can be fun, especially since controlling your sub by design becomes more difficult the faster you go. With a risk-reward system built into the control scheme, high-score junkies should get some good replay value here. Otherwise, the offering is a bit on the short side, with twelve missions and no extra modes. It's certainly fun while it lasts, but Abyss would definitely benefit from an extended mission set.

Conclusion

Abyss is, more than a little ironically, not deep. It is, however, a simple game done well, and quite a lot of fun to play. It doesn't bring anything particularly innovative to the table and it's not a lengthy adventure, but with solid gameplay, wonderful music, and a 200 point price tag, Abyss is a fun and surprisingly atmospheric trip below the surface.