If you happen to have an entirely rational fear of the sea, ABZU will manage to provide the other-worldly diving experience turned up to eleven from the comfort of your room. In the safer environment that is your house, facing an alien creature wading in your direction doesn’t have the same spine-chilling effect, no matter how harmless it may be. This is ABZU’s ultimate goal – transport you to formidably strange and ethereal sea worlds, and suspend your worries overloading the screen with entrancing colour palettes, swaying movements and nigh-magical creatures, as you become an impressionable maritime tourist.
To a certain extent, ABZU feels like a musical with you as the protagonist, where you’re led by the hand around a world of wonders. Your character, a diver shrouded in mystery, will have to find their way through coral reefs, deep-sea trenches and impeccably symmetrical ruins, following the trail left by a great white shark and a cryptic civilisation of powerful and magical artefacts. These objects – scouting robots that tail you wherever you go – are necessary to solve the vaguely defined puzzles that, more than actual challenges, feel like an excuse to keep the player investigating each area, instead of brushing off more recondite areas with more extraordinary creatures.
The mix between sight-seeing in search of fish and completing the tasks required comes around naturally, nudging the player to find new forms of life. As they dive towards the winches holding down the chain that opens the large underwater gate, the player will get side-tracked by a bright orange spiky angler making its way to some even brighter coral. A grouper will then cross your path and by holding down a button, the diver will be clutching onto its top fin, and letting themselves be carried among the purple and pink seaweed. These jolly distractions are the core essence of this game – the urge for discovery of new species and the distinct kinaesthetic feeling of riding on the backs of each orca or shark.
What this game lacks in any narrative aspect is made up in the display of colours, shapes and movement that sustains the whole game, and how the player’s agency allows them to navigate the bottom of the ocean or among the crevices on the rock walls. What follows the sparking curiosity leading players to new places also ensures that they continuously get astounded at every corner. It’s the dream of riding on wild dolphins’ backs while leaping out of the sea that every kid has, hitting you unexpectedly, and with much more chromatic variation than you ever expected in the environment.
Swimming from one end of the reef to another, or through caves filled with crabs and lobsters, is intuitive and organic, whether you’re hitching a ride on a dolphin or paddling your own flippers. ABZU streamlines its control scheme in order to provide a flowing and mesmerising sensation of movement, making you feel comfortable in the ocean, as if your body was designed to move through the medium. This is important because whereas in ABZU you are a tourist, you also blend with schools of fish as though you were one of them. ABZU familiarises the player with the sea in an ode to the enigmatic potpourri of colourful, dangerous and diverse forms of life that inhabits it. In order to do so, first it helps the player shake off the fear and welcomes them with easy and maneuverable controls.
When I first got my hands onto this game, I could not help to be suspicious about the display of colour and its ever-so-enticing theme. However, ABZU uses the sea and its enthralling palettes for higher motives than just as a gimmick. If art aspires to stir the emotions of its audience, ABZU achieves it brilliantly, and perhaps the way it blends the visual shock with the underwater motion just creates the perfect mix to give you goose bumps. Putting the cherry on top, a soundtrack balances the highs and lows, with modest parts with a single violin and extravagant ones, where a whole orchestra plays at unison.
ABZU’s shaky and obscure story lazily attempts to give you something to tie in the different sections of the game, but even though it may not be perfect, it’s clear that ABZU’s priorities are not concerned with its narrative. At some points, ABZU overcrowds the player with species, shoals and colour, not being able to find the joy in the little things. But due to a good pace that never bores the player and an experience that’ll surely make you gasp, ABZU rises above these little issues as a colourful and memorable gem of a game, bound to provide with a delightful experience.
ABZU (Reviewed on Windows)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
Beautiful and full of surprises. The colourful and jaw-dropping vistas and experiences in ABZU will stick with you for a long time. Just like Journey did.