Yeah, see what I said about underwater segments? Nailed it on the head.
Abzu is still gorgeous in the same fluid, sharply colorful way with all the marine wildlife you can imagine in a limitless-feeling sea. It’s also still entirely underwater with very loose turning, land sections that confound, and loose camera action. I made it about a quarter of the way through another playthrough before calling it, satisfied that I had both gotten what I was going to get out of the experience and that I could actually move on to something else.
There’s just nothing to come back to here for me. Perhaps if you’re more in love with the setting or the submersed ecosystem, you can lose yourself again and again. For me, the repeated visits do not do this game any favors.
Originally appeared on The Gamer Square August 4, 2016.
Video game history hasn’t had very many underwater segments that bring back fond memories. The vast majority of archived attempts range from passable to inexplicably asinine with the beloved gameplay of the rest of the game either stripped or shoved into an unshapely box in a misguided attempt at shaking up the pace. Were Abzu in this category, it would be unplayable; despite the inherent, luscious scenery and the divine music, this exploration title moves ahead, and stumbles slightly, on its simple, straight-forward controls that move you amongst schools of life.
Swimming feels fluid with both your character’s actions and camera controls being mapped to joysticks in lieu of motion controls as in Journey – a major upgrade. You can achieve the feeling of cutting through your little section of wide ocean space with careful boost timing, and you don’t ever feel like you’re losing control of your movements. Interaction with the light puzzles and environmental elements is a simple tap of a face button just as diving; the simplicity of these actions almost washes away the controller from your mind. Inversion is even available in the options if you prefer that way of swim control, which adds a level of customization practically unseen in pre-Giant Squid projects by this team.
Abzu does come with some land sections that serve as sore, rusted anchors in your experience each and every time. It’s a bit head-scratching that I can’t even tell you how to fully control your character while on land. Sometimes your character trots in the opposite direction as your titled joystick, but other times he will move as commanded. As frustrating as these segments feel, injecting vitriol where it has no business being, they are brief spots in an otherwise wonderfully controlling experience. A more permanent, and yet less pertinent, issue is the sticky camera that doesn’t always have a way around worldly objects, sometimes deferring to heavy zooms to shake loose and detracting slightly.
Those slight issues aside, Abzu is a visual and audio tidal wave that washes well beyond any shore of mediocrity. Unlike Journey that had the budget to be a relative graphical powerhouse, Abzu’s beauty comes more from its art style than pure system horsepower. The many, many types of aquatic life and flora border on cel-shading with their colors vibrant under a piercing sunlight and about growing algae and coral constructions. Just about every section of the rainbow is fully, glowingly portrayed in different mediums that make every section feel as though the pulse of the sea runs with phosphorus. This, of course, helps stage the sections of darkness and create a current inside Abzu, pulling and pushing you through the mostly linear sections that nonetheless feel wide and free.
Musically, there seems to be something missing. Sound effects are understandably sparse given this is an underwater title, and that gives the full orchestral soundtrack full lifting duties. There is no doubt ear candy throughout with many of the tracks seeming passive and sweeping in imitation of the rolling tide your character travels within, but therein lies one of the slight disappointments. None of the tracks ever seems to stand up an proclaim itself as the track, the moment to pay attention. This makes the aural offerings in Abzu feel like a long, beautifully worded sentence without any punctuation, and thus without much meaning. The visuals ebb and flow along with some music certainly capable of beauty all on its own, but the overall performance seems slightly one-note by the end. Just slightly though.
Making up for that is the sense of life that is introduced and explodes into a highlight in Abzu. Journey’s sense of life was kept to seamless multiplayer, intermittently giving you someone to communicate with through body language; Abzu lacks that component but gives you a full ocean of fish and wildlife to identify instead. At designated points, you can choose to sit and meditate, taking an ethereal look at the dozens of fish species that swim in their schools, or prey upon wandering morsels. The way in which the fish spread upon your approach, become startled at your very presence, or simply offer their backs for a ride releases a subtle joviality when entering each environment. You feel welcome in most places, and feel the substantial difference in the water when you’re intermittently unwelcome.
Even with all the wonder, scale, and splendor found in Abzu, this still isn’t a game for everyone. It’s still a low-interaction, high-atmosphere experience that some people will never let sink past the surface. For those that do give this game a full chance, you won’t find a drop of disappointment, not a sliver of creeping ennui, in the many leagues of crystal clear salty blue you’ll traverse.