Abzû is a game about diving. And…
Abzû is a game about diving.
If you’re like me, you might have spent some significant time staring at store pages and screenshots of Giant Squid Studios‘ Abzû, wondering just what this game is about. And also how it’s pronounced. Far as I was able to tell from the outset, Abzû was — and I don’t just say this because repeating jokes always makes them funnier — a game about diving. I just couldn’t suss out what Abzû actually was.
Then I played it! And I’m happy to tell you that I still more or less have no idea what Abzû is.
Abzû is a game in which you play a black-and-yellow-clad humanoid figure, presumably a diver of some sort, who wakes up one day in the middle of the ocean. From there, they, er… Swim. Swim around, a whole bunch. I’m honestly not being facetious here, there isn’t a great deal of guidance (beyond an explanation of the basic controls). You wake up one morning and you’re in the ocean, so you might as well dive.
What little guidance there is is environmental, enshrined in the level design. The sub-surface ocean isn’t just a flat plane of water, but rather an intricate system of soil, rocks, caves, and other passages. Your starting ‘location’ does start out rather featureless, but eventually you’ll find — by swimming around — that there’s only one place to go. And from there, Abzû increasingly ramps up the complexity. You didn’t like the Mediterranean blue water, it asks? Fine, here’s a lush kelp forest. Here’s a cave of plateaus. Here’s an ancient ruin, hinting at an advanced techno-magical civilization of ages past. Here’s a jetstream where you get to hang out with the whales!
I want to call Abzû a game about exploration, but already that seems to be going to far. Rather, it’s a game of experiences. Abzû is a game about swimming around a gorgeous underwater world, a place absolutely rife and jam-packed with colour, sound, and every species of fish under the sun.
In each area you can swim around relatively freely. Controls are simple: right analogue stick moves the camera, left analogue stick moves your character’s orientation. Hold Right Trigger to move at a steady pace, press A for quick bursts of acceleration. Accelerate enough and you can jump out of the water, and do cool flips. B button to do a cool roll. X lets you charge up a sonar pulse, that’s… useful, sometimes. Finally, holding Left Trigger when close to a big fish lets you latch on to it, swimming along with it and — to a small extent — controlling it. Don’t expect to be playing Yeerk Simulator: Fish Edition, but it’s pretty cool all the same to hang onto an orca and do rad over-water flips.
And if you think ‘Oh, but will I see an orca? Or a ray, or a dolphin, or an angler fish, or a sunfish, or a jellyfish, or…’ Don’t worry, the answer is always yes. Abzû is packed to the gills with life, colour, and detail, pun only partially intended. Every single ocean scene is filled with life and motion, vibrant colourful fish and other aquatic life and more shades of plant than you’d care to consider. It’s all… I don’t know a better adjective for it than alive. Creatures move around in schools and patterns, and larger fish prey on smaller fish, which you’ll often see schooling in response. There’s this idea sometimes that an ocean is ‘just a lot of water’, but Abzû stands as an excellent illustration to just how much more the aquatic parts of our planet really are.
And really, maybe that’s Abzû‘s selling point. ‘A cool game where you can hang out in the ocean without all the hassle that would come with this’. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the statues that dot the ocean landscape, where you can park your character in ‘meditation mode’ — wherein you just flip your camera from fish to fish, following individual specimens around while you take in the sights. So much is this a core feature of Abzû that it’s even accessible from the main menu, for every statue you found during core play.
Abzû gameplay arc, as much as there is, mostly involves you steering your character from place to place. Often that ‘just’ involves swimming; sometimes there are side puzzles, where you have dig up small signaling robots — and then waste hours because you discover they respond to sonar beeps and you want to get a beat going — or finding and hitting a number of switches to open some plot door. And there’s a running meta-plot that involves… god, I don’t even know. Ancient civilization, technology run rampant, ethereal side-ocean dimension, returning wildlife to the seas, ghost shark, that’s about the gist of what I got.
It’s not important. Abzû is a Zen game, a game about casually paddling through an ocean and chilling with the fish and with your robot buddies. I honestly wouldn’t even have minded if that’s literally all there was to it. Maybe a more involved story or mechanics could have been a neat addition to this virtual sea world, but as a method of guided relaxation and learning fancy fish names, I don’t know any title quite like Abzû.
Whether or not this is worth twenty dollars of your time is, of course, entirely up to you.