It’s a brave developer who creates a game that is essentially one giant water level. From Sonic 2’s Chemical Plant Zone, through Ocarina of Time’s notorious water-temple, to floundering beneath the streets of Hong Kong in Deus Ex, many of gaming’s most revered titles have belly-flopped when faced with the wet stuff. But Giant Squid’s aquatic exploration game happily dives in where countless other games fear to dip their toes.
Created by a team formed by ex-Journey developer Matt Nava, Abzû aims to engender a similar sense of mystery and wonderment of Thatgamecompany’s indie masterpiece. It doesn’t quite reach the same thematic depths of that game, but it swims pretty close. On top of that, Abzû also happens to be one of the most visually spectacular games you’ll play this year.
Like Journey, Abzû is a third-person exploration game with simple controls and a minimalist narrative. Your character, ostensibly a nameless diver, awakes in an empty expanse of clear-blue sea, and embarks upon an underwater expedition to decipher the architectural riddles left behind by an ancient and long-defunct civilisation.
Yet whereas Journey emphasised the barren beauty of the desert, Abzû assaults the player with the abundance of the ocean. Within minutes of leaving the crystalline waters of the game’s introduction, Abzû lifts the curtain on a verdant and vibrant aquatic world absolutely teeming with life. The use of colour and lighting to convey an underwater environment is impressive enough, but what really makes Abzu special is how at any given moment, the screen is crammed with digital representations of oceanic flora and fauna.
The sheer diversity of marine life in Abzu is stunning. Brightly coloured shoals of fish follow the player around as they move. Graceful sea turtles weave in and out of giant towers of kelp. Marine mammals such as dolphins and orca leap and dart amongst the smaller fish, often breaking the surface of the water in striking displays of acrobatics. Occasionally, you’ll come across a truly huge beast like a sperm whale, or a massive shoal of fish spinning beneath the waves like a silvery whirlpool. Swimming into one of these tightly packed groups
and watching the hordes of fish swim past the game’s camera, is a truly remarkable sight.
There’s no understating it. The technical artistry that has gone into Abzû – the environment design, modelling, particles and above all animation, is absolutely incredible. But what’s even more astonishing is how this culminates in a game which is enjoyable to play purely for its own sake.