From the developers at 505 Games and Giant Squid, ABZÛ is a depth-defying (pun intended) underwater adventure game that plays out like a magnificent and carefully directed work of art. The incredibly rich seascape in its minimalist style is sure to captivate the player’s imagination, while the musical score and mystery will keep his attention for the rest of the game.
In fact, ABZÛ is so beautiful, you’ll find yourself reluctant to continue the story. At certain points, you won't even care about progressing; exploration is gameplay enough on its own. Beyond a doubt, one of the most exceptional points is catching a ride on a swordfish, and darting in and out of a massive school of hundreds of others, watching the realistic physics scatter across the bank passing you through. I lost a good 5 minutes every time, just watching in awe.
The artistic style and musical score should feel familiar, if you’ve played titles like Journey. Both thatgamecompany's art director, Matt Nava, and composer, Austin Wintory, are part of the creative team behind ABZÛ. And while there are numerous similarities (character appearance, visual style, etc.), ABZÛ easily stands on its own as an incredible experience in its own right.
Each of ABZÛ’s areas has a unique feeling, achieved through astounding environments and immersive music. My personal favorites were the lush reefs and the shallow waters where the sun’s rays bounce off of the fish and shimmery reefs. The deep trenches of the sea, however, eerily convey a sense of darkness and foreboding, with the occasional anglerfish or goblin shark.
While not terribly large, areas are connected by an underwater current which places the player on a rail-like path, letting you glide through the sea while catching small schools of fish. While pleasant, these currents might as well be cutscenes: when triggered, they take control away from the player, trading-off exploration with observation.
ABZÛ’s story is minimal but still manages to keep your attention for the unfortunately short length of the game. Without going into details, it follows a diver who develops a relationship with a great white shark and discovers the ruins of an underwater civilization. It's a great premise, but sadly, its arc weakens halfway through the game, in such a way that it almost distracts from the surreal underwater experience.
Like many other artistic games, ABZÛ’s gameplay is set up to allow the player to progress easily through the game while allowing to focus on sounds and visuals. There is no scoring system, no checkpoints, and no fear of death. There is neither dialogue nor cut scenes, leaving us to experience in an ocean's silence the meaning of our journey. Well done, and while this may bother some, it does allow to progress and experience immersed.
The game’s controls are simple and contain just three actions aside from swimming: (1) Communicating via a beacon, (2) Latching onto a fish, and (3) Meditating. Your only means of communicating with the environment is through the small robot that seems to always find his way back to you. It will follow you, he'll open doors and illuminate dark passageways, but it’s unclear where he came from and if there is any significance in his relationship with, well, you.
Larger fishes can be used as vehicles to explore the deep blue. Just catch a ride on their fins. Interestingly enough, each of these creatures have their own attitude toward being used, some taking a more aggressive stance, while others will let you command with precision and ease.
Last but not least, is meditation. It allows you to follow banks of fish, as they swim around a particular area. While the feature is interesting for a short while, it doesn’t contribute to the progress of the story, or anything else for that matter, other than providing a new angle on your surroundings.
Now here's the problem. ABZÛ is too short. I finished it in just over 2 hours. And while I did spend a while deviating from the story, the environments just aren’t large enough to justify more than about 4 hours of playtime. In fact, consider its length to be roughly about that of a long movie.
I just can't emphasize how incredible ABZÛ looks. The gorgeous trailers and screenshots online don't even do it justice; you just need to explore this ocean firsthand. At just about twenty bucks on Steam, ABZÛ is a worthy purchase for anyone that can appreciate a beautiful, at-your-own-pace, exploration game. On the other hand, the very short story-line, coupled with its minimal replay value, may fail to live up to expectations. At least for quite a few of us, starving gamers.