Abzu Review (PlayStation 4)
There isn't likely to be a game that captures the majestic beauty of the sea quite as well as Abzu. From the moment Giant Squid's first game debuted a few years ago, we've been in constant awe of the oceanic splendor it presents, and the vibrancy with which it captures the world beneath the waves. Beauty only gets you so far however. As spectacular as Abzu's ocean is, from the hundreds of species of marine life to the impressive seascapes, it ultimately feels a bit shallow.
The moment you first dive beneath the sunny skies of Abzu's world, it's easy to lose your breath. Giant Squid delivers an ocean that is both inspiring and terrifying; its expanse filled with life, but keeping treacherous secrets in the periphery just beyond your scope of vision. Though this is merely a singular vision of what the ocean is like bereft of human interaction, it's not far off from reality. The developers have merely tweaked the aesthetic to fashion it in a style more suited for the story they want to tell. That stylization is rather glorious though, and Abzu's visuals are without rival. Everything looks authentic though filtered through a fantastical lens. This is a world alive with feeling and the ambiance is welcoming and warm, despite just how alien this world is to many of us.
Abzu does its best to make players feel at home in the blue horizon however, gently easing divers into the waters. There aren't many controls to be concerned with, as all you'll really need to know how to do is dive and activate your simplistic communication device. A simple chirp awakens things like friendly drones, activates meditation pedestals and engages a few doors. That pick-up-and-play mentality works great at the start, but Abzu doesn't evolve beyond this, and as you progress farther you'll find there isn't much to do but just keep swimming. The swimming is all well and good, and just being able to enjoy these places you'll likely never get to visit in the real world is nice... for a time. Eventually the desire for more to do outweighs Abzu's finest elements.
Perhaps if there were a stronger guiding force in the narrative, this lack of adventure wouldn't matter quite as much. The story, such as it is, involves your diver exploring the mysteries of Abzu's oceans, wherein mystical temples tell the story of a forgotten culture --- one that bares an eerily resemblance to the diver herself. The fragmented history of this culture is something anyone obsessed with the idea of Atlantis or misplaced societies would swallow up in an instant. Giant Squid does well enough to leave things wide open, not answering any particular questions, nor making the mysteries themselves too perplexing. You'll want to know more about Abzu's cultures, but it's up to you to fill in the pages.
Ordinarily, that's something we'd be completely on board with. Not every game needs a story that follows each beat to its conclusion. However, in Abzu's case there isn't anything to fill the void left by the story or mechanics but the visuals. Giant Squid's design for this game is the driving force behind it all, but the vagaries of the story and there not being any gameplay elements to push you forward makes the visual feast one that leaves you hungry. You could spend hours digesting the intricacies of Abzu's architecture and marine life cycles, but all that is still absent any true meaning. The world simply exists for you to observe. Your interactions have no real bearing on the events, despite your being in control of the main character.
Like the eye-catching presentation, the score from Austin Wintory delivers in ways Abzu's gameplay doesn't. There's a wonderful somberness to Abzu's score, and it suits the exploratory nature of the game. Of course, there are more upbeat arrangements as well, with an accompaniment of harps, oboes and chants that transport you from one dreamy sequence to the next. At this point it should come as no surprise that a score orchestrated by Wintory would be so transformative, but this soundtrack deserves just as much credit for building Abzu's foundation of wonderment as director Matt Nava's visual dialogue. Every step of the way, the two elements work in perfect unison to bring you to this place that exists both in and outside reality, and keeping you centered in Abzu's serenity.
While there are plenty of sights to behold and glimpses at fantastically designed locales, there's just not enough driving you through Abzu to keep you captivated for the duration. We'd been waiting for a chance to explore the depths of Abzu's world, but were surprised to find them lacking. Abzu is still an experience we were glad to witness, but its substance is all too minor to make it more than a fleeting encounter with awe.
This review is based on a digital copy of Abzu provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.