All of Abzu is astoundingly beautiful, but is it a game or more of a guided tour? It has all the normal gamification, including collectibles, but it is not your typical experience. (Your personal perspective will determine if that is a positive or negative.) After completing Abzu again, I think I might call it a well-crafted experience that gives a certain person exactly what they want. Swim further into this review. The water’s fine.
The first thing anyone will notice is the visuals. This is an absolutely beautiful game, and the art direction is phenomenal. If you have not already, take a look at the trailer. I’ll wait here until you come back…
I told you so. The graphics themselves are not photorealistic, but I defy you not to be enchanted with the game’s world. Every color and image is striking. The game revels in creating an even more amazing vista around the next corner. The lighting is used to incredible effect as you watch the sunlight stream through the openings in the top of the water or watch an underwater light stir envelop in brightness.
This is not just an empty world either. It’s full of life. There are sharks, squids, sea turtles, and so many others by themselves or in schools moving throughout the world. The game has special statues setup periodically to allow you to view the game for meditation as you would an aquarium. You can move between the different fish and the camera will follow that fish as it swims in the environment.
The music is outstanding, and it is a powerful part of every scene. It was composed by Austin Wintory, best known for the soundtrack to Journey. Every area in the game has its own theme, including soft oboes, lonely violins, and triumphant vocal choirs. The mood is carefully set and frames everything you see. There is no dialogue in the game, and the music effectively fills that space.
With few exceptions, the game is mostly a zen simulator. Outside a few areas that funnel the player from one area to another, the majority of the game is filled with the gentle motion of the protagonist swimming to the next cavernous room. The act of swimming is both easy to control and (pun intended) very fluid. Some of the areas are very large and provide you plenty of room to stretch your fins. All spaces have a full x, y, and z-axis movement, and I found swimming around searching for pools to release more fish into the environment, finding shells, and simple puzzle solving was very peaceful and relaxing.
One problem is that you had better like what I just described, because there is really nothing else in the game. It is like going to your grandparents and seeing some object made of glass in a display case. It is beautiful, but there is nothing else you can really do, but look at it. In fairness, there is a slight narrative to be found, but it is vague at its most descriptive and mostly non-existent everywhere else. In watching the credits, some of the musical lyrics were taken from the Enuma Elis, and reading the Wikipedia article was the closest I came to understanding what I was seeing. I am still not honestly sure about the story, and that’s OK. It’s not necessary to enjoy the game. I am also sure someone with a deeper knowledge of symbolism can tell me how dense I am in the comments.
The other potential problem I found was that it is very short. I did not time it, but it took me around 3 – 4 hours to complete at most, even if I was stopping to smell the underwater roses. Everyone derives and perceives the value of a game differently and subjectively. Subsequent playthroughs do not offer anything new. You can make your own informed decisions about what price is right, Monty Hall.
I have had two big questions while thinking about this review. First, is this a game? Second, is it good? For the first question, I am not sure that it matters. You will need to make your own determination. If you are wondering, I have tried to hold off on a Journey comparison, but I think it is very fair. For people who found Journey to be a sublime, perhaps even a spiritual experience, you should buy this game. For everyone else, especially people who are not sure they will like it, I would wait until the price drops into your value comfort zone.
For the second question, Abzu does a few things extremely well, and I will not be surprised to see it win best of awards in both art design and musical score. To answer it directly, if you know what you are getting and like it, it is good, and you will see a unique type of game that is not being churned out by the hundreds every year.
Abzu is incredible in its execution, and it is a very tight experience. There is no waste, and it was made with a clear vision of what it wanted to be, although it may be a little thin in content and rely too much on its presentation. Even with the issues I mentioned, I still look forward to diving back into its world when I want something that is as low impact as your grandmother’s water aerobics.
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