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Game Review: Abzû (2016)

My Ideal World

Photo retrieved from Steam via Google Images

Everyone who's read my Journey review from yesterday knows what I think of the game. It completely blew me away.

Abzû, meanwhile, completely sucks me into its subaqueous orbit.

I can't help that I'm a sucker for aquatic exploration, both in real life and in my video games. The moment I watched this game's title sequence was when I knew it was made for me.

Abzû is an arthouse aquarium simulator meets adventure game created by Giant Squid Studios, which is comprised of several Thatgamecompany members. Much like Journey, the story is told entirely through effective visuals and events your character witnesses or experiences—beyond that, it's open to audience interpretation.

My personal take on the story is that it's all an allegory for your character trying to find peace within themselves, by reconnecting with the underwater civilization that their kind was once a part of. I think that the game sends a subtle, yet strong message about ocean environmentalism in light of what had happened to marine species in the past, and what's happening to them now. In many respects, technology isn't doing much to ease things, and it may even be hindering our ability to bond with and understand them in their purest form. This is a thematic aspect that I believe the game delineates exceptionally well.

The ocean is a mysterious and dramatic place that no human has ever explored or comprehended in its entirety, but we never stop to think that maybe it's possible for oceanic beings to live pleasantly in harmony while still fulfilling their basic needs. It makes sense, since marine life determines what happens to our planet after all. Sure, the ocean has its friends and foes, but this game seems to antagonize the player more than anything else. Nevertheless, it seems to allow us to progress towards a sort of redemption, as symbolized by our growing relationship with the recurring great white shark throughout the story.

We start off as incapable of doing more than simply taking in the sights, but in slowly helping these beautiful creatures save their homes, we realize that through trust and cooperation we are able to conquer our inner demons that seemingly take over our perceptions of the world around us. We always think of animals like sharks as the "villains," when in reality this isn't necessarily the case, and we see in Abzû that they're just living their lives as peacefully as they can. They even show that they're willing to assist you in your mission by giving you boosts as you swim. I know they're personified and romanticized here, but it has nevertheless been said that fish might actually be able to communicate with humans, so hey, don't lose hope!

Aside from how endearingly attached you'll feel to these creatures, you can also learn their names by hanging on to them or meditating on a shark statue (so that you're able to scroll through all of them in the area). Some of them identify with their real-world common names, while others seem to be referred to by their Latin names. Either way, they're really neat and will make you want to do a ton of research on them after you're done playing. Watching these magnificent beings swim around is incredibly relaxing, and this portion of the game honestly belongs in a museum or exhibition.

The pacing and atmosphere, unsurprisingly, are top notch. The game knows exactly when to speed up and slow down both your character and the surroundings; the ambient sounds and majestic soundtrack are timed perfectly with these moments. I don't recall Journey featuring a choir, but this game does, and it's glorious during your visits to the shrines (it reminds me a little of Krazoa Palace in Starfox Adventures).

Abzû's major selling point, of course, is its aesthetic. Do I even need to say how breathtakingly gorgeous the ocean is? Oops, never mind, I already did. It's basically like Journey taking place underwater, mixed a little with Wind Waker's art style. The colours, lighting and shadows all go together wonderfully. There appears to be soft shading on the character/animal models, and cell shading in some parts of the environment. I like seeing a combination of the two styles, and they look great. My only nitpick is that the blue whales look rather artificial when compared to everything else, and it is a little distracting.

If I did have one actual criticism, it would be the controls. At times, they don't respond the way you want them to when trying to swim forward or jump forward in the water; they instead make you move backwards or to the side. It takes some time to figure out how to position yourself precisely for those actions. It can be a little frustrating, but it definitely doesn't take you out of the experience once you get the hang of it. Otherwise, everything else is responsive.

If you've played through and enjoyed Journey, Abzû will give you that same invigorating experience in the opposite environment. If you haven't played Journey... go play that first, and then make your grand dive into this palatial waterworld—doctor's orders.

Abzû is available for PS4 at $26.95 and for Windows on Steam at $21.99.

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Game Review: Abzû (2016)
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