My first encounter with Abzû was only in name; its spelling, pronunciation, and unusualness merely piqued my interest. After conducting an exhaustive investigation ( known as a single Google) search, all I saw in a few hits was Journey and my interest soared from mild to insatiable.
Journey is the kind of game pushes the limits of what is signified when one says “video game.” Like games such as INSIDE, Journey infringes upon the boundaries of a medium. It is more than a visual novel; it is a short story enlivened. I cannot praise the game enough. Just by virtue of Abzû being vaguely associated with Journey, I embarrassed myself on Twitter, making the assumption that both were developed by thatgamecompany. It is actually the art director of Journey, Matt Nava, who is Abzû’s brainchild.
Violence: Those who lack the gastro-intestinal fortitude to endure the violence that is the food chain will want to avert their eyes, for the Natural Order of life under sea is in full effect. In fact, Abzû features an achievement to bear witness to the primal instincts of predator and prey, with an emphasis on the former.
There is an event that exposes the player-Avatar’s…innermost self. Think in terms of the T-600 exoskeleton, but far less threatening.
Spiritual: According to Wikipedia, “Abzu” in ancient Mesopotamian religion is the name for the primeval sea. So then one can assume that the setting of this game is representative of the belief that this is where all life begins. One may consider Abzû a creation story rather than an evolutionary argument.
Eye averting is the exact opposite of an appropriate response to the visual tonic that is Abzû. From the moment the player gains control of black aquatic avatar, Abzû tries to bewitch the senses with a smattering of colors and choruses of fishes. In this, Abzû generally succeeds, ranking in at “pretty” on a scale from hideous to gorgeous. Each section of the game is in essence an arena-sized room featuring a pedestrian puzzle that is necessary to solve before moving on to the next contiguously arranged area. Every new zone features a unique combination of colors and fish essentially functioning as explicit cues to indicate different underwater ecosystems. Rocks, sand, coral reefs, and flora enhance the authentic feel of this aquarium simulator.
Again, Abzû is pretty, but I hesitate to use stronger adjectives due to some graphical inconsistencies. The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker is a prime example of how cel shading can work effectively, but here I find it discordant at times. Abzû feels indecisive in its expression as video game or maritime National Geographic. A room that could feature large majestic creatures such as manatees or stingrays could skimp on detailing the sea floor. Other rooms begin dark, and after a mysterious sequence, they illuminate to provide a striking contrast. I understand the purpose of this mechanic, but I am not sold on the gimmick.
Speaking of gimmicks, Abzû unashamedly pilfers its method of narrative exposition from Journey—a special kind of game in which its story and visual display are interwoven. Perhaps it would be unfair to penalize Matt Nava for this flagrant emulation since, again, he was Journey‘s art director. Even so, he might have benefited from stealing its writer on his way out of thatgamecompany’s door. Unlike in Journey, the elegant Egyptian-style murals that can be found in Abzû do not come to life, leaving one to conjecture what it is that supposed to be gleaned from their discovery. Sure, the game can be played and beaten without giving a single flip about the story, but it is there, and should be decipherable. Beyond these murals and a ridiculously predictable reconciliation followed by serendipitous improbability, the story unfortunately yields an enigma.
Abzû strives to strike true where Journey once did while inverting the setting from an arid desert to an underwater labyrinth, but it misses the bullseye. For every dolphin leap from the water, every new species of aquatic life discovered, every deep-sea dive with a sperm whale, there are inconsistencies such as there being no indication as to the purpose of having more than one mechanical companion, or that the story aims for ambiguousness but succeeds vagueness. Ominous mines flicker violently as the Avatar closes in proximity to them, but even when they are set off, the Avatar is visibly in pain, but survives even a chain reaction of several. Why do these mines even exist? Why is this Avatar seemingly invulnerable? What are some things that I can take away from experiencing Abzû that will help me remember it years from now besides the fact that I swim for approximately two hours (and about three if looking for hidden items and fish)? I cannot answer any of these questions, so I can only conclude that this game is a bold experiment that is missing the polish that I have come to expect even from indie developers such as Giant Squid.
Boox creepy fish! (Red Stripe Reference)
The Bottom Line
Abzû is a nice looking game that will also be remembered as a missed opportunity to surpass or at least achieve a comparative level of greatness that is its inspiration, Journey.