Journey changed the game when it released back in 2012, bringing a distinctly serene experience to PlayStation owners that championed the experience of play, rather than the goal of conquering challenges. Journey generated all sorts of acclaim for its atmosphere and pace, so it comes as no surprise that Matt Nava – Journey’s art director – wanted to return to this type of gameplay when he was given the chance to direct his own title, Abzû. Trading the sandy deserts for deep aquatic environments, Abzû excels at immersing the player in an unforgettable, painterly world of life and mystery, one you’ll want to explore again and again.
Abzû isn’t a game about having ‘fun’ in the traditional sense that one thinks of that term as it relates to gaming; there isn’t really a way to win or lose. After a seamless introduction, you’re taught the basic controls for a nameless diver and are then allowed to explore the ocean environments at your leisure, going wherever you please and enjoying the gorgeous scenery. Lazily winding around, going this way and that, is the bread and butter of Abzû; it’s about the experience of swimming around and interacting with all manner of aquatic life around you.
Although there’s not any real challenge being put forth here, movement is clean, smooth and mimics the feel of real underwater movement quite well. Much like how in Super Mario 64 it’s fun to screw around a bit with Mario’s moves outside before entering the castle, you’ll find yourself enjoying the simple pleasure of doing loops around coral reefs and rushing through schools of fish as you familiarize yourself with each new environment. The diver can move quickly if needed, but the experience is best enjoyed when you’re taking it slow and drinking in all the little details. Certain statues allow you to sit and meditate, simply watching different species of fish swimming by, and if you want, you can even grab hold of the bigger ones to ride around on.
Despite the open environments, Abzû is a relatively linear experience; essentially it’s a game of jumping between little sandboxes. Each ‘room’ is large enough to take about ten to fifteen minutes to fully explore, with various details like ruins, caves and seaweed forests all contributing to the diverse seascapes, and these rooms are seamlessly linked by caves and other passageways. Before moving on to the next room, there’s usually a light puzzle to solve – such as having to find a little robot or activate two rusty chain pulleys to open a door – but there’s nothing here that even comes close to stumping the player.
Indeed, if you’re the kind of player that needs some motivation in your gaming, like an objective or a goal to strive towards, Abzû might not be the game for you. This isn’t a game about beating levels or conquering a challenge; it’s about slowing down, paddling around and taking your time. This is the perfect game to play if you’re looking to get something in just before going to bed. Checking out colourful fish and mysterious caves while floating around these idyllic environments is entrancing and immersive, creating a sense of involvement that many games can’t muster; the word “atmosphere” is thrown around a lot as it relates to horror, but Abzû does a fantastic job of showing how atmosphere can be used to create a sense of all-encompassing tranquillity.
At the heart of Abzû lies a subtle story, too, about the rise and fall of an ancient underwater civilization that was destroyed by a sinister mechanical pyramid. There are no dialogue or cutscenes to be found here; all narrative is explained through environmental details like algae-covered murals on cracked cave walls or a great white shark that guides you from place to place. As one would expect, this narrative style can only go so far, but it’s rather surprising how much emotion the developers are able to coax from the silent performances; the joys and sorrows of the story hit hard in equal measure and create a real sense of investment in what happens next.
This being a more experiential game, Abzû focuses on delivering a highly satisfying visual style that constantly surprises and delights as you explore the ocean depths. Graphics are drawn with a stylized and slightly low-poly aesthetic that works wonders at conveying dreamlike seascapes which all feel sufficiently fantastical, but also just real enough that you could believe they really exist somewhere. Little details like realistic ball-baiting for schools of fish or predators randomly eating lone wanderers in a flurry of bubbles contribute to making each environment feel like a living ecosystem, while wide shot moments where the camera zooms out to show off how small the diver is relative to the vast expanse of the ocean are quite humbling and thought-provoking. From start to finish you’re in for a serious visual treat, regardless of whether you’re playing on the TV or on your Switch screen.
Perfectly matching these visuals is one of the most serene and melancholy soundtracks we’ve heard in gaming, expertly weaving in elements of mystery, excitement and foreboding as you journey deeper. Music is all orchestrated and some tracks even integrate the angelic tones of a choir, and there’s an element of interactivity that few games attempt to implement. The music will ebb and flow like the tide according to what’s happening on the screen; a rousing track that plays in the colourful midst of a school of fish will slowly transition to something lower and more relaxed as you enter a nearby cave. We’d highly recommend you play this in portable mode and use earphones, as the usage of 3D sound adds a notable extra element of immersion to further transport you into these aquatic worlds.
Those of you looking for a lengthy experience won’t find much here, as Abzû only takes about three hours to clear; five if you take the time to find the collectable seashells scattered throughout each environment. From a more practical perspective, it may not seem like this is a game that’s very much worth your time, but we can’t emphasize enough the quality of the atmosphere and world that’s so carefully crafted across those few hours. Abzû is a game in a league of its own, offering up an experience that’s unique, memorable and mildly spiritual in how it weaves together visuals and sound.
Abzû is certainly a standout release on the eShop, offering up an experience that breaks from the norm of goal-based gaming in favour of something that’s more focused on simply existing in a world and enjoying all its little intricacies. Those of you who appreciate casual adventures like taking a walk in a forest will be sure to enjoy what Abzû has to offer, as the dreamlike visuals, entrancing orchestral score and deliberately sedate pace do a fantastic job of drawing the player into this alien world. We’d give Abzû a high recommendation to anybody looking for something a little more gentle for their Switch; it’s not a game about winning, but about the journey (no pun intended) you take getting there.