When I think of the sea, the ocean, lakes and rivers, I have mixed feelings. At times, I have to think about how terrifying it can be and how anxious I get at the thought of not being able to see what’s below me. I’m afraid of deep water and the unknown lurking in the shadows of the sea… but other times, I have to think of beautiful reefs and a whole world under the sea level that awaits my curiosity. Today’s Indietail is about a game that I’ve been meaning to play named ABZÛ. It’s a game about exploration and relaxation… I think! But more on that later.
Developer: Giant Squid Publisher: 505 Games Genre: Relaxing, Atmospheric, Underwater, Exploration, Experience Release Date: August 2nd, 2016 Reviewed on: PC Available on: PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox One Copy was purchased.
In ABZÛ, you play as a diver of sorts that is only able to react and interact with the world via sound pings. The game revolves around you exploring an ocean of sorts and bringing life to the world by freeing marine animals from the void and releasing them into the sea. The actual plot of the game is rather strange and hard to explain. I’m not entirely sure if I understood it myself and when I talked about it with a friend, he ended up having a completely different idea of what the game was about. This phenomenon is mostly due to the way that the story is conveyed: Environmental Storytelling. It’s an interesting mechanic used in games and it can be relatively hit or miss. If you’ve been here for a while, you may recall how Elden: Path of the Forgotten failed to deliver the story well, resulting in a negative experience… ABZÛ does it semi-well, I’d say. In ABZÛ, you only have two “levels of storytelling”, I would say. While you go through the game, you have the first “level”: Your own experience. You witness events and see what’s happening right now… And then you also have the second “level”: The Lore. It’s things that you have to piece together from wall paintings, sculptures, and other things in the world.
I believe that the first “level” is very cryptic without the second “level” – and the second “level” would make next to no sense without the here and now in the game, aka what you’re experiencing. In that sense, ABZÛ enables theory-crafting and analysis by letting you, the player, piece it all together. As you go through different areas with different fishes, you may find paintings that depict an ancient culture, and you kind of have to figure out what all of this means. This way of story-telling reminded me of Journey, which is an easy comparison to make as Journey and ABZÛ feature not only the same composer but also the same art director.
And yes, you may have noticed by now that I haven’t actually talked about the gameplay yet and that I’m about to head into the soundtrack and presentation, but frankly, ABZÛ is lacking in that department. I mean, you swim from area to area and have to maybe get a switch to open a gate but there aren’t any deeper game mechanics than that, which was a bit sad to see. The game is simple in its premise and the gameplay turns the “player” into more of a “witness” – an interesting concept but it can feel boring as well if you’re not up for that. It’s more of an experience than a game, I would say, although games can of course also be experiences and vice versa. Uhm, it’s hard to describe without getting into too much detail, but ABZÛ’s gameplay may be pretty and relaxing but the game itself is quite shallow (no pun intended). More on that later.
Where ABZÛ really shines is the art and the score. The marine world is filled with life and as you add more life to the area, you get to not only learn more fish names but also relax. Just let the current take you away as you relax. There aren’t any real dangers in the game. The game goes as far as giving you the option of meditating on certain spots while you spectate fishes as they swim around and/or get eaten. The game’s strengths lie mostly in its presentation, as it presents itself to you like a peaceful game with no real goal or pointers. Instead, you’re just diving into his world, with no context or instructions. Swimming feels nice but you don’t have a goal to reach. Instead, curiosity is your friend as it makes you swim towards the eye-catchers that are sprinkled through the world. In that sense, this game is the same as Journey. It’s trying to give you an experience. It’s not trying to make you play it. You could very much quit at any time and come back later. Nothing would change. The developers wouldn’t cry about that. They’d like that. They want you to enjoy the experience, and in that way they succeed because, in essence, ABZÛ does that well.
ABZÛ may be relatively short and shallow but it has an absolutely beautiful art style and score. The melancholic to mellow tracks make the experience truly enjoyable. The world is interesting. The name of the game itself is, if I remember correctly, derived from a belief that lakes and rivers take their water from underground veins of very fertilizing and life-giving waters that lie beneath the underworld/the void. That connection to the game gives it a bit more depth, but still, it’s not perfect.
Again, the game is quite short and can be completed in one sitting. At the same time, you don’t have too much replayability unless you’re the type of person that likes to do nothing in the game. ABZÛ tries to add a bit of replayability into the mix by giving you these shells and other things to collect but I found them rather distracting and annoying as they didn’t add any value to the experience. I would have liked lore in the shape of more paintings that you find in secret locations or more statues better. It would have made more sense. Story-wise, I still have questions… and I’m not entirely sure about some things, which is mostly because you can easily miss out on some of the wall paintings.
Still, even with those flaws, I’d recommend ABZÛ to anyone that wants to experience something along the lines of Journey or Flower. It’s not “thatgamecompany” though, so there are some flaws to it… Right now it’s 75% off at Steam!