I’d like to begin by thanking the fine folk at Giant Squid Studios for using a circumflex “u” in their game’s debut title, forcing me to copy-paste it wherever I need to. Additionally, I’d like to get something out of the way: Abzû is in many ways a lot like one of my favorite games of all time, Journey. Now, game critics like to throw around phrases like “draws from”, “channels” or “leans heavily on”. Games can be “a homage” or “a love letter” to other games. They “wear their inspiration on their sleeve” (I know I used that one at least once) but for Abzû it was nothing short of glaring. I largely enjoyed the game, but its beat by beat retread of the themes, pacing, some of the mechanics, music and even some camera angles from Journey left me a bit conflicted. How much inspiration is too much? When does an homage become a feeble attempt to ape the source material?
While we will touch on all that, I did have the foresight to do a little research before writing a scathing review and found out that Giant Squid Studios was founded by none other than Matt Nava, the art director of the gaming masterpiece Journey. Additionally, the composer is Austin Wintory, him too of Journey fame. Foot in mouth masterfully avoided.
Abzû: PlayStation 4 [Reviewed], Windows PC
Developer: Giant Squid
Publisher: 505 Games
Release Date: 2 August 2016
Price: $19.99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
Abzû? Abz who?
You play a diver. You explore the ocean. You find things and interact with them. Much like with Journey, the entire gameplay of Abzû consists of exploration, deciphering the environmental storytelling and finding your way forward. I can’t tell you what happens. Reviewing Journey was an ordeal for me, as I didn’t know how to approach it by saying as little as possible while conveying as much as what the game made me feel. So let’s try that. Let’s start with fear, shall we? It’s not a scary game by any stretch of the imagination, but it did mess with me in a bunch of interesting ways. I think I’ve had one of the darker experiences playing this game.
I’m not afraid of many earthly things. I used to have a fear of spiders but that’s subsided into a mild disgust. Snakes, rodents, all matter of things that slither and crawl never did much for me. I’ve grown accustomed to the dark. Not even Tim Curry in a clown costume startles me anymore. What does scare me, more than anything else, is what many have called Cosmicism. It originated in H. P. Lovecraft’s writings and it’s not as much a fear, as it is a constant, dull, impotent dread. A mute scream of desperate outrage at the vastness of the Universe and our undeniable insignificance within it. From an astrophysical perspective, we’re an infinitely small speck of dust in the middle of an explosion we can’t even comprehend with our minds. Everything is chaos and we don’t matter. That’s the philosophical perspective.
From a more practical, tangible one I’m afraid of immensity. Of the idea of being given an ensemble view of an impossibly large structure or creature while in an unfamiliar or hostile environment. I’m not talking about something like the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. My mind can handle a T-Rex. My feet can run from a T-Rex. I can hide behind buildings, I can do something about it. But do you know that feeling of vertigo you get when you look up at a very tall building like a dam, a bridge’s foot or a sky scraper? Picture that feeling, that unease, without the possibility of lowering your gaze to reset your balance perception. Picture an enveloping and consuming enormity. It can be a structure or a writhing mass of organic mass, a gargantuan creature, anything. Picture yourself floating helplessly in the void of space faced with an object or creature of such an incomprehensible size that you can’t even tell where or if it even ends, and your ability to escape contact with it is made practically inexistent by its sheer size. That’s the stuff that scares me. The very idea of it gives me the chills.
And where else could you find something even remotely similar than in our very own deep blue oceans? The stuff that covers 70% of our planet is vastly unexplored. Beyond the shores and reefs where we like to snorkel and splash around we can see a scant few meters down, and then just darkness below us. Just endless darkness filled mostly with water, if I allow my reason to speak for a precious few moments, but also great white sharks, blue whales the size of three story buildings, colossal squids, sperm whales and fucking angler fish that can grow to over one meter. Did you know that? Of course, it’s highly irrational, but that’s how phobias work. There’s probably nothing lurking in the darkness, but they might as well always be there, always waiting to reach up and drag me below. And I’m only mentioning all of this because it’s all so visceral that I doubt that I’m alone in it but I’m hoping it will grant some context to those that don’t relate.
The game threw me in the middle of a well-lit sea with no land to be seen in any direction on the horizon. It was with a heavy heart that I obeyed Abzû‘s first button prompt and pressed “dive”. It took mere instants for me to forget my phobias and unease, as I was immediately taken in by the sea’s tranquility. Accompanied by composer Austin Wintory’s familiar style of strings and oboe tunes, the ocean floor soon seemed welcoming. The control scheme is simple in concept but in my opinion a bit overdesigned in its execution. You hold the right trigger on the controller to swim, the right stick to control the camera and the left to steer or control the vertical pitch. You use the square button to interact with objects (which you do by emitting a sound, much like in Journey) and X to get a speed boost. I took a while to get used to the controls and set up the various normal/inverted axes, which each player will probably want to do. And then I set on to explore.
Unlike in Journey, there’s no mountain-sized objective on the horizon constantly telling you where yo go. The areas, however, are at the same time more self-contained and more dense then Journey‘s. Where once there were barren deserts and ruins, majestic in their desolation, Abzû has lush environments teeming with life. Schools of fish will follow you around or go about their day and you can even ride larger specimens such as dolphins or sharks. These vibrant environments encourage exploration, making up for the clear lack of a destination. In fact, while there are precious few puzzles in the game, they rely heavily on exploration. Some landmarks you interact with will release a few new fish into the area, or allow you to “meditate”, studying the swimming behavior and patterns of the creatures around and you’ll occasionally find powered-down submersible drones that will follow you around, interact with you and occasionally unlock the way forward.
The game’s structure and pacing also follows Journey’s familiar pattern of four thematically different areas, exploring the ruins of what was once a great civilization and discovering how they fell, followed by a powerful bleakness and an uplifting crescendo. I did not resonate with Abzû as much as I did with Journey, though. I did not find the same compelling motif of seasons, life cycles and rebirth. While visually striking, it does not as effectively convey its narrative as its spiritual predecessor did.
While most of the game is vibrant, well-lit and colorful, I was not spared the dread of the dark depths below. At times I found myself in impossibly vast ocean ravines with my objective far ahead and only darkness below me. And here I was torn. My base instinct compelled me forward, to the objective, while my gamer sensibilities told me to dive below, into the murky abyss and come what may. I need to remind you what I needed to remind myself. This is just a video game. Nothing that was below could hurt me in any physical way, and yet there I was: a 28 year-old man afraid of pushing some buttons in order to get the video games to happen. I eventually dove. The camera crept up close to my protagonist, as if to contribute to the paradoxical claustrophobia caused by the vastness of the ocean and I felt nothing but apprehension as I dove further until I reached the ocean floor. I dreaded what might expect me there. What gargantuan slumbering monstrosity I was about to find. I won’t say more, but I lived to tell the tale and I dove again and again, each time I found a dark ravine. Phobias or no, a gamer needs must explore. And the game knows you feel this way. It intentionally frames its shots and adjusts its music so that you feel uneasy, small and insignificant when it wants you to, yet driven and powerful in other instances.
It took me a couple of hours to complete Abzû and the journey (no pun this time) took me through shallow waters and coral reefs, frozen caverns and deep trenches, lost ruins and abandoned technological facilities of civilizations long gone. It did not leave its mark on me in the same way that Journey did, but it was (for the most part) a relaxing and tranquil experience. I liked its colours and liveliness and it was a welcome break from the routine of killing and vanquishing.
Songs of the Sea
I don’t consider it a huge secret that I hold stylized graphics in higher regard than high-fidelity photo-realism. They simply age better and hold up as technology keeps redefining photo-realism. Abzû, obviously goes for the former with its bright colours, smooth low-polygon models and occasional contour lines. However, it does not eschew the opportunity of using certain graphical effects to handle the water’s reflection, light beams and impressive particle effects. If anything it furthers the practice of not digging one’s heels deep in either camp and using what’s best for the art direction.
I loved Journey’s sound design and soundtrack and as consequence I felt the same toward what Abzû had to offer. This is both one of its greatest strengths and one of its greatest flaws. The music could easily carry the game’s atmosphere on its own. It felt gloomy in the frozen depths and uplifting while currents carried me forward at incredible speeds through caverns and canyons as the sun’s light breached the surface and the camera slid to my side to show me a lateral view of the scenery. Exactly like in Journey. If I had the inclination I could probably show you a collage of side by side comparisons where the composition, music and pacing not only resemble, but match Journey almost one to one. I’m not decrying this as much as you might infer, but it does seem like a bit of a shame to simply recreate (admittedly powerful) moments and themes from it in Abzû. Or maybe I simply don’t understand the artistic mindset. I know there are painters, film directors or writers that love rehashing elements across their body of work. Hell, one of my favorite writers is Stephen King and he can only write about five things, if I’m being churlish. My biggest problem with this practice was that I found the constant callbacks distracting and I think I could have immersed (or rather submerged) myself better if everything were fresher.
I already mentioned the control scheme and some of my misgivings with it but I’d like to elaborate for a bit. I found it physically tiring to hold down R2 for the vast majority of the game because it’s the only way to move forward. Left Stick only rotates the character’s positioning and the Right Stick controls the camera. I know 3D movement is always tricky, but I never needed to face the camera in a different direction than the one I was moving towards. A twin-stick scheme, or at least the option of one would have suited me much better. Additionally, holding the left stick to pitch the character up or down doesn’t have a hard limit when reaching the maximum pitch, making it easy to swim directly up or down, but rather continues to rotate your character along the vertical axis.
The complete lack of cutscenes is slightly detrimental to the story. It relies on you moving your camera around and actually looking for murals depicting historic events. It results in the story and narrative being slightly less easy to discern and puzzle out, but it’s not the main focus of the experience. I also find the lack of any sort of platforming or environmental puzzles more complex than following a thing and interacting with another thing a bit disappointing but I don’t feel that it takes that much from the rest of the game.
Abzû retraces the beaten path and literally gives it a new dimension. Where it repeats the past, it does so gracefully and applying its own identity to a preexisting framework. Where it does something new it’s bold and masterful. Its audiovisual style stands out and the game itself seems determined to take you along for a superb ride if you allow it to. Its flaws with the control scheme I found I was able to get used to after a while, but its callbacks to Journey were more outstanding as an issue for me. It is for this reason alone that while I consider Journey to be a masterpiece, I can only call Abzû “damn fine interactive entertainment”.