Developer: Giant Squid Studios
Plaforms: PC (reviewed), PS4
Date of play: 3/08/12
Play time: 98 minutes
ABZÛ is a game I didn’t really know about until a couple of months ago. But Austin Wintory tweeted about it and I follow him so I figured it must be good, if only for the music. Wintory composed the soundtrack for Journey, which is still my favourite game of all time. And that’s good, because ABZÛ is very similar to Journey. It maintains the design choices of Journey: minimal user-interface, minimalist storytelling and a focus on music and visuals (specifically architecture) to tell a narrative. At the same time, however, ABZÛ managed to carve out its own identity with a heartwarming story with a strong moral, a beautiful aesthetic and immersive (pun) gameplay.
ABZÛ’s gameplay is relatively simple: you move around underwater and can activate certain items and ride certain fish. It’s incredibly simple, but in a way that gives it a purity that makes the protagonist an extension of the player. This simplicity allows for ABZÛ to tell its story while still engaging the player with simple — very simple — puzzles to maintain their interest. It’s akin to a “walking simulator” in that sense, though ABZÛ, like Journey, has the barest minimum of obstacles and challenge so that it’s more of a game than the games lumped into that genre. Also, again like Journey, there are parts where the ABZÛ’s gameplay serves to create meaning and further the game’s story. Things like how the main character can interact with fish becomes relevant later on, and how you interact with some objects and characters serves to create a connection between the main character with this lost civilisation and the ocean life. Also, at times, again like Journey, ABZÛ decides to really give you some fun by letting you swim through strong currents with large schools of fish. The visual feedback combined with the sound makes it such a beautiful experience, you’ll probably miss some of the collectables (which are also in the more slow-moving areas). The controls are somewhat floaty and take a few minutes to get used to, but that’s really unavoidable. Also, your first really big open area has invisible walls, but being constantly walled off via actual walls would take something out of a diving game, and it’s pretty clear where the boundaries are.
Where ABZÛ shines is in how it builds its world and story. You’re dropped into the game without any context, just like Journey, and so you simply make for whatever seems most interesting, in this case underwater tunnels. However, throughout he game, recurring motifs — like the main character having a triangle on their back, and the old civilisation’s gateways being shaped like triangles — make it clear that you are somehow connected to a destroyed underwater civilisation that somehow managed to harness a sort of magical water energy (as in water beneath water) connected to ocean life. And at the same time, the recurring threat of deadly sharks makes it clear that they were somehow involved with this civilisation in one way or the other. As the main character tries to seemingly restore this lost city, more and more of the full story is revealed and you can piece more of it together. This more complicated manner of delivering story allows for some real surprises, as you find that your interpretation of events are played with wonderfully. Plot twists aren’t explained to you at all; the wall-paintings, events, shifting colours and music is enough to convey meaning. And all of this intrigue manages to tell a story with a simple moral, but one that feels earned through how complex its delivery was. That’s all I can give without spoiling, but suffice to say, the way ABZÛ plays with your expectations is wonderful, and I wish more games did this.
Visually, ABZÛ goes for the simplistic, high-contrast style that’s gotten popular recently in games like The Witness. But where it works is that it’s not relying on a sheer variety of colour and just upping the contrast on everything. ABZÛ has a coherent art style: the fish are beautiful but not overdone. The main character is beautiful in their simplicity and animation. The architecture of this lost civilisation has a great unified look to it, and the clashing aesthetic of that architecture with the main character and their drones creates a good contrast that serves to actually tell the story! Things aren’t perfect; I played the game on Ultra and maintained 60 fps, but I had some framerate drops in extremely large schools of fish. There are also some clipping issues every now and then that takes away from some of the immersion.
Wintory’s score is, as expected, beautiful. ABZÛ’s music is how much meaning is made of its visuals, so falling short would mean the entire endeavour falling apart. But ABZÛ’s soundtrack is full of beautiful orchestral and classical music that will guide you on your journey. The music ramps up and sweeps you away when the aforementioned current does the same. It’s looming and disturbing when a shark intimates you. Wintory’s music is beautiful and gives much of ABZÛ’s scenes more meaning. It’s not as good as Journey, but it’s still an amazing sounding game.
ABZÛ, more than anything, is a game about simplicity and the depth that comes from that. The mechanics are simple. The story (at least my interpretation of it) is simple. The art style is relatively simple. But it has depth in how it uses this simplicity to create depth. The fact that ABZÛ doesn’t hold your hand and encourages you to interpret what you’re seeing, hearing and doing is what gives it depth. ABZÛ, like Journey before it, is what you make of it. And to me, it’s a game which uses its simple gameplay, gorgeous aesthetic and beautiful soundtrack in tandem to tell a wonderful story that plays with your expectations and has real meaning.