Impressions – ABZÛ

You might not realise it yet, but when the year comes to a close and discussions begin about ‘graphical achievement’ in gaming are getting heated, you may just be talking about fish. Not just any fish mind you, oh no, but next generation fish.

“ABZÛ’s biggest achievement is how small and out of place it frequently makes you feel. This isn’t our world. It doesn’t belong to us and our input isn’t necessary, we are just here to observe.”

From the acclaimed artistic direction of Matt Nava comes ABZÛ, an aquatic adventure that is so serene, so beautiful and so peaceful, that just existing in this world is so uplifting you can’t help be swept away in wonder.

So why exactly is the name of Matt Nava such an important one? Well, if like me you were enraptured with a small indie title on the Playstation 3 (and recently remastered for PlayStation 4) called Journey, then that name is one you should know well. As Art Director for ThatGameCompany on Journey Mr Nava gave us some of the most memorable and ethereal experiences of the last generation. A unique exploration of interaction through sound and visuals throughout it’s tightly condensed run-time.

Having left ThatGameCompany to form his own studio, Giant Squid, 3 years later ABZÛ, the studio’s first title, is finally here.

“…the composer responsible for making our hearts soar with such uplifting melodies is back here too to do the same with a whole new soundscape.”

The second name that is important to highlight is that of Austin Wintory. Also of Journey fame and the composer responsible for making our hearts soar with such uplifting melodies is back here too to do the same with a whole new soundscape. The importance of this collaboration cannot be overstated. As with the medium of film when a great director does their best work with a great actor. Here the combination of the visuals and music is proving to be one of the greatest collaborations in the industry.

ABZÛ is an underwater exploration game that, at it’s core, feels very similar to Journey. It won’t take you long to get to the end of it’s wonderful environmental storytelling, but these games have never been about the destination. As mentioned earlier, simply being in this underwater “alien” environment feels wonderful and something quite special. Not only for those fish either, but they are a real treat for the eyes. To see all this marine life swimming around you in often schools of hundreds at a time, it can frequently be mesmerising just to float there and watch how all the species interact with one another. Perhaps ABZU’s biggest achievement is how small and out of place it frequently makes you feel. This isn’t our world. It doesn’t belong to us and our input isn’t necessary, we are just here to observe.

The strength of the storytelling is told through sound and the environment just as it was with Journey. But personally I found ABZÛ to be an overall much more compelling and poignant game. The ‘plot’ is really open to player interpretation, and fully exploring each underwater area will allude to a greater understanding of this world’s history.

“To see all this marine life swimming around you in often schools of hundreds at a time, it can frequently be mesmerising just to float there and watch how all the species interact with one another.”

If this is all sounding far too perfect, then sadly there are some drawbacks that, depending on the individual, might be deal breakers. Firstly is that ABZÛ is incredibly short. On the day of release we live streamed it from the beginning and finished the game at just over 2 hours. That’s without rushing, but taking our time and making sure to savour all the sights. There is more exploring to be done sure, but it’s shorter than I was hoping for. Secondly, and this is very much a design decision, it’s not exactly a difficult game, because it’s not intended to be. This is not a survival game therefore the constant need to replenish oxygen is removed completely, allowing you freely get lost in this underwater world. I do wish the developer made some of the environments a little more treacherous to navigate through, even the puzzles (I use the term loosely) are so simple that they aren’t really puzzles at all and have definitely missed an opportunity here.

Controls works extremely well on the Dualshock 4 controller though, with R2 making our Diver swim forward, Thumbsticks are used for steering and the camera and L2 is used to latch on to some of the larger mammals, like dolphins or manta rays and go for a ride! An unexpected feature that serves no real purpose other than being a tranquil, often beautiful moment of bonding.

The swimming itself is extremely well implemented that you’ll feel like your flying. Gliding through reeds, jet streams and underwater ruins is a constant spectacle.

If you haven’t guessed by now I fell completely in love with ABZÛ just as I did with Journey before it. The art and music of these games transcended any shortcomings I felt they had and should be part of everyone’s game collection.

As mentioned previously about player interpretation, ABZÛ’s story comes with a poignant message about the broader themes of our planet and our relationship within it. Or it could just be about swimming with next generation fish. Either way, highly recommended!

Version played: PlayStation 4
ABZU is currently available for PlayStation 4 and PC.

You can watch our full playthrough here

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