The comparisons to Journey are unavoidable. This is, after all, a game helmed by Flower and Journey art director Matt Nava. In fact, the opening third of the game echoes so many beats of Thatgamecompany’s modern classic that it’s tempting to conclude that the template has simply been transplanted into a new setting: a lonely wanderer, here a female diver; a linear pilgrimage whose path frequently balloons in open areas that contain simple puzzles; and even a current-driven surge through underwater caves that echoes Journey’s exhilarating sand-surfing sequence.
But while both games celebrate freedom of movement, Abzû is in many ways an even more joyful expression of unstructured play. Where Journey saw players dance through the sky, scarves billowing behind them, here you never have to touch down as you propel The Diver through schools of fish and swaying golden kelp forests, hitching rides on the backs of turtles. And while there is darkness to overcome along the way,
Abzû’s outlook is one of perpetual optimism. Just as you settle into the – entirely pleasant, it has to be said – idea of an underwater Journey, Abzu veers off in an unexpected direction in such a smart manner, playfully teasing you for making the wrong assumption, that you feel guilty for ever underestimating it. That’s not to say anything that precedes that moment is in any way disappointing, however.
Abzû begins simply, in an almost featureless expanse of water whose foggy blue is broken by the dim outline of a cave entrance in the distance. You can surface – though The Diver never needs to come up for air – but there’s little life above the water, nor any islands, only floating kelp, the clouds and some gulls. As you progress, you’ll encounter an astonishing number of fish, sea mammals, testudines and cnidaria. Giant Squid’s engine can put around 10,000 creatures on the screen, and the result is mesmerising.
Fish shoal and dart about in response to predators as a simulated food chain plays out in front of you. Catch a lift on a larger creature (achieved by holding L2), and you’ll see that they’re not simply tracing an angular lap around the area, but hunting, exploring and even playing. Searching each area will usually reveal several spawning coral circles which, when interacted with by tapping Square, will release new species into the mix, often changing the dynamic of the food chain in the process. But while the spectacle is undeniable – even if the framerate suffers slightly with the largest shoals – the most surprising thing about it all is how unusual it feels to witness such convincing aquatic AI. We didn’t realise it was something we hankered for until now.
This interactive nature documentary can be enjoyed by meditating on statues found throughout the game, switching the camera between the different species of fish – all of which are taken from the real world – and simply watching them interact. There’s surprising mileage in doing so, but some of the game’s most atmospheric moments occur when you descend into the depths, Austin Wintory’s stirring soundtrack settling into a low thrum as your torch flickers on.
Aquatic life isn’t the only presence you’ll encounter. At several points in the game you’ll find burnt-out drones. Repair them, and they’ll join you for a short portion of your journey, responding to the chirrups you emit by tapping Circle (a vocalisation that also attracts fish to your side) and replicating your movements through the water. They’re also essential to your progress, the drones’ lasers breaking down the walls that intermittently block your progress. The puzzles themselves never get any more complicated than finding a pair of mechanisms and activating them, but the point of their presence is less about providing a challenge as it is encouraging you to explore the charismatic environments. Nava’s colour palettes are astonishing, throwing murk and pastels onto the screen in combinations that feel entirely fresh, building to a breathtaking final sequence that erupts into an unforgettable chromatic bombardment. And the unassuming tech propping up Abzû’s world creates naturalistic lighting conditions that frequently make you wish David Attenborough was narrating.
There’s an unusual tension between the meandering, exploratory pace of the game and the desire to meticulously scour each area for all of its secrets. The aforementioned fishy portals and broken drones are never too far out of the way, but Giant Squid has also sprinkled Abzû’s world with a handful of nautilus shells to seek out and collect. While Abzû’s running time is a taut three or four hours, some of its locations are relatively large (especially given the necessarily ponderous pace of The Diver’s movements – though this is mitigated somewhat by her ability to boost forward like a squid), and navigating them can occasionally be confusing. We left some areas with the nagging sense of having missed something, despite spending a good amount of time looking around.
Rather than a criticism, however, the lingering feeling is a testament to the sense of wonder Abzû instils in the player, the feeling of grand adventure it manages to conjure in its short runtime, and the appeal of its enigmatic world. All further evocations of Journey, certainly, but Abzû distinguishes itself from that project by dint of its building sense of momentum, its greater technical ambition, an unwaveringly optimistic outlook, and a neat lategame twist. It presents a welcome opportunity to immerse yourself in an ocean that’s profoundly reactive to your presence, but appears content to get on with things whether you’re there or not.
The tech creates naturalistic lighting conditions that frequently make you wish David Attenborough was narrating