ABZÛ doesn’t tell its story in a traditional sense. There’s no voice work, there’s barely any sound effects and there certainly isn’t any text to tell you what’s going down in the waters of ABZÛ. Everything is inferred and while at first glance the story of ABZÛ might be simplistic it’s the way it unfolds and tells its story that makes the whole experience really special. Taking some very, very light inspiration from Babylonian mythology and building upon that, ABZÛ is an experience that almost every player should seek out.
The less you know, the better when it comes to a game like ABZÛ, so we’ll keep the synopsis rather short. In ABZÛ, you play as The Diver. She’s a mysterious being, someone who has the power to awaken certain objects and someone who can calmly interact with all kinds of sea life without much worry. There’s much more to the story, however, and as players begin to spend more time with The Diver they’ll discover a great threat to the ocean and discover just what is going on and where The Diver fits into all of it.ABZÛ is easily one of the strongest emotional experiences I’ve had with a video game for quite some time. The story isn’t necessarily groundbreaking but it’s the moments that build the story – the major set pieces where the diver interacts with nature – that really hammer home how great developer Giant Squid are at creating believable and vivid worlds. While none of the characters speak, you’ll bond with them and feel the ups and downs as they do throughout the story. The game’s plot is one that you unravel yourself, and while there are some obvious cues in plain sight there’s more to this rich mythos that meets the eye – rewarding players who swim off the beaten path.
At risk of sullying my reputation I’ll mention here that I didn’t care much for Journey, which is a game that players will inevitably compare ABZÛ to. But ABZÛ is different – it’s a story that you share with The Diver and the ocean and nobody else. A completely solitary experience and a much more straightforward story with greater (if not more relatable) conclusions.To match a beautiful story ABZÛ similarly employs a beautiful artistic direction. From the moment you boot the game it’s clear that it’s been built to be a visual feast for the eyes. Taking on a more stylised look for its environments, ABZÛ features an almost cel-shaded style which make all the colours bold, bright and beautiful. Similarly, it’s quite awe inspiring to see the various fish and sea creatures dance and flutter through the ocean, each behaving differently depending on the species it’s based on.
Some will mind their own business on the ocean floor, others will chase after what will inevitably become their food, others will engage in realistic looking shoaling and schooling. You’ll even encounter fish engaging in bait ball formations. It’s a world that you can easily get lost in because it’s been envisioned and realized so well and from beginning to end ABZÛ will throw all kinds of formations and fauna at you and you’ll always be surprised or taken aback at just how good it all looks.Such care and attention to detail carries over to the environments in the game, which are also beautiful. For a game that takes place almost entirely in the ocean, there’s a lot of variety on offer here. Ruinous caves, open reefs, deep and dark maws – there’s a lot of variety in the zones you’ll travel between in ABZÛ. As the story becomes more and more involved you’ll travel to locations that you wouldn’t expect to make an appearance in a game of this caliber but do, and in the interest of spoilers we’ll avoid talking about them here.
From an audio perspective, ABZÛ has had a lot of thought put into it in regards to the scoring. Austin Wintory, who worked on the soundtrack for both Journey and flOw, really flexes his creative muscle here. When diving through brighter locales the music feels light and airy – employing stringed instruments like harps. When diving through darker locales the music takes on a more somber tone. Once again, without ruining too much, while diving through more exotic locations the soundscape changes yet again to feature more electronic or more synthetic sounds. This almost perfect marriage of visuals and sound gives ABZÛ the incredibly atmosphere that so many games dream of having.While ABZÛ does take place in the ocean it is a largely linear affair. You’ll be flung from zone to zone, each encompassing a mini biome of sorts. While it is a linear game that pushes you from moment to moment, within each zone there is time to interact with the different fish, restore small segments of the population and ride larger species of fish. This is largely the crux of the experience with ABZÛ – it’s an overly passive and non-violent experience where players can interact with the many creatures in the sea or watch them interact with each other. It sounds very understated – and it is – but it’s the world building and hands-off approach to storytelling that sets ABZÛ apart from its contemporaries and predecessors.
When most gamers hear that ABZÛ is a game that is entirely comprised of swimming segments, it’s understandable that many would let out a collective groan. Swimming in games has often been a frustrating affair but thankfully ABZÛ gets it just right. One button is used to propel The Diver forward while the sticks control her angle whether it be on a vertical or a horizontal axis. It is admittedly a system that doesn’t allow fast and precise movement but it perfectly matches the games subdued pace. There was never a moment where I felt the controls of ABZÛ interfered with what I wanted to achieve in the game – especially in some of the later scenarios where precise movement was beneficial.The general structure of the game is that there is some kind of very linear scenario which eventually opens players up into a more open biome before being pushed ahead again. It’s during these moments where most of the exploration will happen. The Diver can “meditate” atop certain statues which allows her to hone in on the different species in that area. Just being able to switch between them on the fly and watching their schooling and shoaling behaviours is an oddly relaxing activity. Certain areas of each biome cane be ‘awakened’ with The Diver’s sonar ability which introduces new species to the area. It’s fun, if not slightly grim to see new species either eat or be eaten by whatever else is in the area. You’ll feel like you’ve restored balance to the food chain.
These are the segments where those players who explore more will be rewarded with more mythology and lore about the world of ABZÛ. There’s a surprisingly detailed level of back story to be discovered here, whether it be about the world, those who came before, or even The Diver herself. And it’s all rewarded to those who not only play through the game but those who aren’t afraid to swim off the beaten path (for lack of a better word) will have a greater understanding of the visual text that ABZÛ has to offer.It’s the parts between each of these areas that’s really where ABZÛ shines, however. Once again, without ruining too much of the experience, the first transition sees The Diver riding a very fast current through the ocean as all kinds of fish and mammals ride with her. You’ve got an objective during these parts – whether it be to rejuvenate schools of fish as you speed past – but none of it really matters. It just contributes to the colourful display on offer. That’s the thing about ABZÛ that really resonated with me – that it’s all about making the experience as experiential and relaxed as possible.
ABZÛ is all about interacting with nature and playing the role of The Diver and discovering how she fits into the setting, and it does that extremely well. Just swimming into a bait ball of fish and seeing them adjust their behaviors, when combined with Wintory’s beautiful score, is an experience like no other. Between the zones you’ll encounter some truly touching and special moments – those who appreciated the restraint of the now revered giraffe scene from The Last Of Us will appreciate many of the moments The Diver has with the creatures of the waters in ABZÛ. There’s hardly ever been a game where the concept and premise behind it are united with the gameplay with so little dissonance or friction.ABZÛ is exactly what it appears to be – it’s a linear game that encourages players to dive into its deep waters and interact with nature. It’s hard to ignore that the game is clearly taking some obvious cues from its predecessors but it does so and builds upon them to carve out its own identity with gusto. This is a game that aims to tell a story and it tells its story well. It’s a game that aims to get you, the player, to feel emotionally connected to the sea life. And it does.
From the moment you first meditate, to the moment that you discover your first ruin or ancient text, to the chilling revelations to the absolutely euphoric end, ABZÛ is an experience that bewitches and charms players from start to finish. It’s a truly rare situation where I find myself so smitten with a game that’s so passively beautiful from start to finish, and thus needless to say that everybody should experience what ABZÛ has to offer.
The PS4 version was primarily tested for the purpose of this review.