ABZU: 2016 a sea odyssey
Updated: Jul 21
I have been meaning to play Journey for some time now. You know Journey dear readers? That wonderful (according to word of mouth) game about going on a friendship affirming journey. Sadly through limited resources and time, my ability to purchase Journey has slipped me by. ABZU was one of those games that wanted to offer a similar experience to Journey (released on 2012, ABZU was released in 2016). Journey was primarily set in a desert; ABZU is set in the sea. One could accuse ABZU of being a rip off of Journey (I personally have not heard of that accusation myself). But that would be highly dismissive. ABZU is a perfectly good game even without the comparisons to another (possibly better) game.
What starts out as a seemingly innocuous swim in the sea turns into a odyssey to restore life to the ocean and solve the dominance of strange triangular mechanical beings. Remnants from some lost civilisation that you might have a connection to. At first glance ABZU has a rather simple story. You help nature reclaim its place from the machines. It’s not even the most original premise in the world, Ferngully: the Last Rainforest or any environmentally themed piece of narrative art has this core premise in some way shape or form. What sets ABZU apart is the execution and the lack of preachy fluff (a common problem with environmental themes in media).
The lack of voice
One of best parts of ABZU’s narrative is the complete lack of overt narrative. Now that might sound like a backhanded compliment to some but it is really not. ABZU is able to pull off environmental storytelling brilliantly (that so few games are able to do well). The walls of underwater temples give us just enough details to help us understand the themes and how the world got to be where it is. The way the diver interacts tells me so much more about his/her/it’s personality then a lot of fully voiced character could ever dream of. I love Austin Wintory’s score, who can through a single change of note, can tell a story worth a thousand words. I teared up at the ending, the sense of friendship; the sense of triumph of adversity was so strong I sobbed from the joy of it all. That is commendable. That should be celebrated.
As mentioned previously, ABZU is an environmentally themed game. The main ‘quest’ is to (through implication and chapter resolution) to free the sea creatures from their capture and allow the sea to rise. It’s not subtle in its theming but it does not have to be. The sheer wonder of seeing a barren ocean burst into life and colour is more than enough to be narratively satisfactory.
However there is another theme that drives the main antagonist force. Namely the strange mechanical beings, they are the only hostile force in the game (they explode if you get too close). Everything from the harsh red and orange to the triangular shape scream sinister scheme. They are the evil that was created by the people of the diver (who is also a robot as it turns out). ABZU then subverts the trope of nature good and technology bad. The robotic diver is integral to restoring nature. Even with the seeming detrimental effects of technology on the environment, the same tech is integral to restoring said environment. It’s a message that very few environmentally themed narratives succeed in. Technology has the ability to save and destroy, to heal and harm. ABZU offers a simple but surprisingly deep message that is something of a rarity in media.
ABZU is very simple in terms of its mechanics. A total of six chapters with small open ended levels with basic puzzles. The swimming controls I will get into with some detail. I however will say that ABZU is a remarkably polished title. Beauty in simplicity is the phase of the day when concerning ABZU. You can swim around the beautiful levels, solving simple but never the less rewarding puzzles. Find collectables and then process to the next area and restore life to the ocean. It’s simple but never the less compelling.
Swimming in game
This is my biggest problem I have with ABZU. This is a problem with me and the sort of player that I am. I will not hold it against the game itself. It’s not the game that is flawed but me. However I cannot ignore that swimming in ABZU is needlessly tricky. This is a problem that I have with any game that has three dimensional movements. I always overseer the diver and nine times out of ten I will find myself stuck in the floor or swimming to the surface.
Steering is very difficult; the final challenge is annoying in this regard as you have to be precise. But the steering is so stiff that I find myself just missing the thing. Because I turned just a little too early. It might be different for you and if so then I am happy that you had a better experience. The control scheme is obviously not really for me.
ABZU is a mostly linear affair. The puzzle areas are however more open ended. For the first few times the areas are little empty of things to do. There are some collectable shells( that I could not find any personal use for) but that is about it . As a result, the areas are simple, utilitarian but otherwise of not much use to explore after you solve the puzzle. But, that is no always the case. The sections where you travel along the currents are, in fact, a blast. You can have fish join you through the rapids.
Even though you do not have much control over your character per say the pacing and mere act of rushing through the rapids just feels wonderful. They never are too long and as a result, never wear out their welcome. The puzzles in the temple are inspired with the diver alternating between swimming and walking (as slow as the walking might be). It does escalate the puzzles and the exploration aspects that only good games can offer.
Art style and graphics:
ABZU is utterly beautiful. There is no much more I can say really. The cartoonish art style and graphical simplicity make ABZU visually timeless. Colour is used with stark visual clarity; every area is memorable because of its use of colour. Everything from the turquoise starting zone to the lush dark blue of the underwater city, preserved perfectly in the moment of abandonment, is dazzling in its handsome appearance. ABZU is beautiful in every sense of the word.
ABZU runs very well asides from some minor FPS slowdown. A moderately distracting bump in what otherwise is very smooth butter.
There were times when I considered giving ABZU a place in the Hall of Fame (it would have been the fifth entry this year). There were times when I found myself smiling while my character splashed and swarm with the dolphins. The ending, made me tear up because I felt so happy. But the main flaw that prevents me has to do with the controls. I can acknowledge that a lot of it has to do with my problems with swimming gameplay (or any sort of gameplay that involves full dimensions like EVE Online’s space combat). You might not have a problem with it, if so I am happy for you. I wish I could ignore the finicky nature of the controls. But I sadly cannot.