Many people have intense fear or phobia of the sea and what lurks in the depths. Others are fascinated and grow up saying they want to be a marine biologist, to catalog the vast array of creatures weird and beautiful that inhabit the oceans. I'm happy going for a swim at the beach and the occasional snorkel. Abzû certainly made me feel like joining the latter group however, expressing childlike wonder at finding a new species to swim with and staring in awe as schools of fish shimmer in the light as they move through kelp forests. Are they still forests underwater?
Abzû shares many similarities with the game Journey, which should come as no surprise, the creative director having being the art director for Journey. The comparisons go beyond artistic presentation however with the feelings of exploration and wonder ever present under the sea as they were in the desert.
The underwater scenery is breathtaking, thankfully you don't need to worry about air as your underwater man seems fine without it. The water, fish, whales, and plant life all look incredible. As I said I am no marine biologist, so I don't know if pink kelp is a real thing, but it sure is pretty. Fish of every colour of the rainbow fill out the seas, with some serious attention given to the animations of how they swim, by themselves and in large groups. Swim into a huge school and they will swim around you still following the group at large; it looks fantastic. I almost wore out my screenshot button during my playthrough, while most shown here are from early in the game and similar areas the whole palette of colours can change between each environment. Going through the game I most certainly never got bored of slowing down and taking in the sights.
There is a light narrative that develops throughout the game, taking you from area to area. The game is linear, with large areas ripe for exploration being linked together by tunnels, doors, or perhaps a very simple puzzle needing to be solved. Puzzles never really go much beyond 'find the end of this chain' or 'find a robot buddy to cut through something' but they force you to explore the environment a bit more if you weren't already so inclined. Hidden throughout are collectable shells and small rock pools that if chirped at (again, Journey..) will unleash a group of certain species of fish, all angler fish for example. These serve as something for those who like to collect everything, and give achievements/trophies for finding them all.
An interesting feature is the meditation stones, generally found in large areas these stones allow your character to sit down and chill out. During this time you are given a spectator mode of all the swimming creatures in the area. You cannot choose specifically who to follow, but you can flick between targets, getting told the name of the species you are currently watching. The efforts gone into simulating the behaviours really become apparent here, and you may even spot a predator eat a poor unsuspecting smaller fish. The meditation stones act as another sort of collectable, and are viewable from the main menu. You can also travel back to any previously used stone if you just want to hang out and watch the world go by.
The story was much more interesting than I expected, leading to compelling encounters and unexpected places, and if I might say I found the ending just if not more emotional than the ending to Journey.
Something lacking when again compared to Journey is the co-operative play. In Abzû you are alone, with respect to other players. However the ocean is teeming with life unlike the desert, and being able to hitch a ride on an orca or sea turtle makes it feel like you've made a friend. The small robot drones also have a lot of personality to them, responding to your chirps that you can use to interact with their own, and doing somersaults to show off.
I would be remiss to not mention the fantastic soundtrack by the composer Austin Wintory, also responsible for the music in Journey and The Banner Saga. The music fits perfectly and gives a strong emotional punch to many of the scenes.
While the closest cultural comparison to Abzû is obviously Journey and comparing the two allows to communicate a lot of what this game is about, it also feels unfair to dismiss it as "Journey but under the sea". Personally I enjoyed my time with Abzû more than when I played Journey, the world being so full of life, the narrative that builds up and the interactions you have hit me harder here.
It's a good job nobody can see you cry under the sea.
Abzû, developed by Giant Squid Studios is available on Steam and Playstation 4.