Developer: Giant Squid
Publisher: 505 Games
Format: PC, PS4 (reviewed)
Released: August 2, 2016
ABZÛ conducts itself with a rare, beautiful, and often astonishing gracefulness. Acting as the first game from the newly assembled development studio, Giant Squid, founded by Flower and Journey art director, Matt Nava, ABZÛ is a spiritual successor of sorts. Certainly not a carbon copy of what came before it, Giant Squid’s underwater endeavor is therapeutic and refreshing, injecting a poignant sense of life into all of its submerged facets.
The game’s influence extends beyond the title itself, displaying a creative easel of meditative artistry that offers a welcome escape from reality’s boisterous vocals. While peppered with a few tense moments, ABZÛ’s is mostly a peaceful endeavor, unconfined from traditional gameplay and design structure. Splashing, diving, and floating about the vastness of open water and enclosed caverns as sea life surrounds you, is a deeply resonant and newly embarked upon feeling. ABZÛ gave me a unique look at an untouched frontier and a deep dive into what lives among the depths of the ocean. The short, yet effective venture provided a nuanced perspective on the inner workings of an ecosystem and the unspoken bonds therein, invoking an uncommon rush of emotions. ABZÛ is a wonderful and assertively confident exploration of life, and its layered, thought-provoking impact won’t escape me anytime soon.First impression may lead you to believe ABZÛ is simply a swimming simulator. And while that assertion isn’t completely false, there’s more to ABZÛ than a quick glance from the surface can glean. In order to better understand it, one must submerge themselves in the Giant Squid’s colorful and delightful portrayal of the deep blue sea. Just existing within ABZÛ’s world is purely captivating. Forgoing a traditional introduction, ABZÛ impressively begins with no narrative context to what’s happing, placing you in the role of a mysterious diver. The nameless protagonist is silent and the story surrounding them is completely nonverbal, interposing a sense of unfettered purity. Nothing ever gets in the way of ABZÛ’s silent narrative, allowing the title to confidently hone in on its aquatic-based presentation. Much like Journey, ABZÛ never struggles to invoke emotion. Each time the game focuses on summoning a specific sentiment, the swiftness and ease on display are impressive. For a game set in an otherworldly environment, ABZÛ manages to comfort you with its serene sense of place. There’s no blatant story to follow here, but the calming wonder of exploring the ocean’s depths is powerful enough to rival thousands of lines of dialogue.
ABZÛ IS ARTISTICALLY STUNNING AND EMOTIONALLY EVOCATIVE
Propelling you through its just under three hour runtime, ABZÛ’s setting comes with a gravitational pull of beauty. Beckoning your attention, the detailed locales and underwater life is easy to lose yourself in. Whether exploring sunken civilizations or swimming alongside monumental sized whales, ABZÛ plays with the scale of encounters in clever and constantly inventive ways. In one instance, the camera began to methodically pull black, putting into perspective the size and ultimate insignificance of the mysterious diver in the face of the ocean’s more substantial occupants. Communicated beautifully, ABZÛ is an exercise in developing a sense of place. Nothing stands out more than the ocean itself, acting as a key player in forming what makes the experience so incredibly memorable.
Musically, ABZÛ flourishes. Each note of the Austin Wintory’s score is breathtaking, invoking palpable, emotional feedback as the music swells. Synchronizing the world’s captivating tone with a beautiful soundtrack is among ABZÛ’s most pronounced strengths, never lessening its masterful quality through the duration of the experience. It’s a striking fantasia of excellence, and one that I’ll be keeping on repeat for sometime to come.Going off of presentation alone, ABZÛ is one of better looking and tonally crafted games of recent years. Nevertheless, there’s more to it than its supremely refined coat of polish that glistens throughout the odyssey. Where ABZÛ is held back from excelling beyond greatness, is in the simple, though largely uninvolved gameplay it embodies. While traversing about the gorgeously-realized sea floor, very little challenge or basic skill is presented or asked of the player. Initially, the less involved emphasis on mechanical driven gameplay is refreshing, offering a departure from the barrage of tutorials that have become commonplace. However, as peaceful as ABZÛ’s “hands-off” approach to gameplay is, it ultimately holds the title back from reaching the same level of profoundness that made Journey a masterpiece. Gameplay wasn’t the total focus there, but it also wasn’t an afterthought. It isn’t completely one here either, but the agency the player has at any given time can feel restrained. ABZÛ’s gameplay is accessible to a fault, sticking to a short list of functions entailing diving, boosting swim speed, performing tricks, and my personal favorite, riding the larger fish in the sea. Even when recognizing its strengths, I was left wanting more from ABZÛ’s gameplay.It’s impossible not to draw similarities between ABZÛ and Thatgamecompany’s Journey. Embodying many of the same visual and mechanical traits as its spiritual predecessors, ABZÛ is very much the thematic continuation of what Journey accomplished at the time of its release. Even in the act of hitting many of the same narrative, aesthetic, and emotional beats as Journey, ABZÛ remains original and refreshing. Relying on themes strongly reminiscent of the ones drifting through the whisking sands of Journey’s gorgeous desert, the underwater setting brings a new dimension to the peaceful and often emotional messages at work.
BEING SURROUNDED BY THE SEA IS THERAPEUTIC AND AWE-INSPIRING
Absent from ABZÛ is the riveting incorporation of multiplayer that painted Journey’s adventure with unforgettable interaction between others. However, the absence of the feature doesn’t hurt the package, for ABZÛ isn’t a lonely game. You’re constantly in the presence of colorful and flourishing life, from thousands of fish, to luscious plant life shrouding the seabed. Surrounded by the sea’s inhabitants is a comforting, awe-inspiring, and occasionally frightening experience, showcasing a world rarely explored as extensively within games.Conclusion: ABZÛ is disarmingly meditative. Swooped up in the vibrant and striking visual hues of the ocean’s vast expanse, I was utterly enthralled from start to finish. The level of immersion surging through the waves of ABZÛ is impeccable, rarely showing cracks in its presentation. Carried along at a speedy momentum, no time is wasted and each sequence makes the most of its thematic potential. The biggest issue looming over ABZÛ’s greatness is the lack of mechanical agency it lends the player. For as impactful as the underlying, subtly conveyed narrative is, the same sense of tangible feedback can’t be said for the player’s own role. Sure, from a gameplay perspective everything performs competently, but the depth of the mechanics stop at the surface. Nevertheless, even with a few “hands-off” feeling moments, ABZÛ remains simply wonderful in presentation. Calm, collect, and at times astoundingly profound, Giant Squid has come out of the gate with an enrapturing winner.
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