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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

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