Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Giant Squid
Review Date: 8/25/16
From the creators of "Journey" (2012) comes another beautiful, lyrical, contemplative, emotionally moving, thought provoking, metaphorical mystery that doesn't make a damn bit of sense. This time, instead of being a traveler in a barren desert, you're a diver in a tranquil ocean. You swim through a wide variety of colorful environments that are teeming with sea life, and discover the ruins of an ancient civilization. Some of the machinery from that civilization is still active and poses a threat which you must ultimately overcome. In certain places, you enter a portal that takes you to the "cosmic water of life," which is inferred by the Sumerian interpretation of the game's title. Things get a little metaphysical there, and your interactions effectively cleanse the area that you're in and bring life back to it. Things get really weird in the final act, where you enter the primordial sea (which is another interpretation of "abzu"), are reborn, and take the fight back to the machines with newfound powers (and a reborn friend).
If it sounds a lot like "Journey," it's because the story, gameplay, and narrative structure are exactly the same, and that's what ends up hurting "Abzû" the most. The game is beautiful to look at and the sea creatures are fascinating to watch. While the models and movement are extremely accurate, the rendering is more stylized than photorealistic, so it doesn't quite match the standard set by "Ecco The Dolphin: Defender Of The Future" (2000). Austin Wintory's soundtrack is wonderful and does a great job of setting a mood while dynamically adapting to your surroundings. Some of the cutscenes and transitions are incredibly powerful and hit all of the right emotional notes. The controls are simple and straight forward for the most part, but they're also the source of the game's greatest failure. When you're swimming, you can choose your Y-axis movement (pitch) to be either normal or inverted, depending on whether you want to control your character like a flight simulator or not. This works fine when you're underwater, but it becomes a real problem when you surface or climb onto land. If you use the normal setting when you're not underwater (meaning there's no Y-axis movement), pressing forward makes you move backwards while pressing back makes you move forward. This is completely maddening and unforgivable. I've never seen any other game bungle this up so bad. When you're dealing with 2-D planar movement, the control scheme should always revert to being traditional. For most of the game this isn't a problem, but later on, every time you poke your head above the surface or get out of the water, you have to bring up the options menu and change the controls. Then you have to change them back as soon as you dive underwater again. It's a really disappointing implementation that could have been easily fixed. But apart from that, the game is fantastic and highly immersive.
And then there's the incredibly vague story, which is open to any number of wild interpretations. The only hints that you get are presented in obscure murals that line the walls of the sunken temples that you encounter. They depict references to the "water of life" which is somehow tied to the ancient machines. Is it extraterrestrial in nature? Who knows? A Great White Shark is depicted as a god, but its alignment isn't clear. Do the people worship the shark or fear it? It is a bringer of life or a force of death and destruction? There's no record of catastrophe like in "Journey," so it's unclear what the nature of the sunken ruins is. The protagonist is also purposely ambiguous, and apparently doesn't have to worry about breathing underwater. This, thankfully, alleviates the need to always keep track of oxygen levels, which is the biggest nuisance about underwater games. While this aspect of the character is explained later during the game's biggest reveal, it may be more symbolic than concrete. This is by far the most frustrating part of the game, because at face value the narrative makes no sense at all. While that's fine and doesn't affect the gameplay any, you can't help but feel like there's something deeper going on, and not being able to come up with answers makes you feel really stupid. Is it a story about a diver and a shark fighting some ancient evil, or is it all just a metaphor for the birth of the universe? Students of symbolism will likely be thrilled by the game's obscure mythological nature, whereas I felt like I was being constantly deceived in some bizarre Kafka-esque way. Much like "Journey," I've seen some pretty crazy analyses of the material, which just end up confusing me more. However, if you can get past trying to view the game in a logical manner, "Abzû" delivers a delightful underwater experience that favors quiet exploration and discovery over danger and fast paced action. And despite the glaring and occasionally offensive similarity to "Journey," it's still worth checking out if you're a fan of meditative art games.