It takes a while to get used to life down here, in the darkness and slop of it Abzu‘s underwater palaces. The world feels fundamentally different when your movements are slowed down and made heavy by water resistance. And then, perhaps as a sort of compensation, you’re given the freedom to fly, floating up and down in slow-mo through the swarming fish. You play as an adept diver, with strong legs, thick fins and a flashlight on your head, yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re an invader in a foreign realm. Your outfit can’t hide the fact that your body isn’t made for a place like this. You are not welcome here.
It takes time to adjust Abzu also in other ways. This is a fashionably chic independent game, without ugly and intrusive HUD elements that spoil your view of the watery domain. But it also surpasses many other expected contemporary game design conventions. For example, there is no map and no flashing mission marker to direct you to your next objective. There are actually very few goals, at least in the usual video game sense. There is no health bar, no experience points, nor ways to improve your character’s skills. A single button is used to interact with the world, an all-encompassing interface used to release shoals of fish from meshes of trapped leaves, or send mechanical devices into orbit to open a window through the coral. cutting, or to free a shark from a collapsed masonry.
While there are hazards much later in the form of unexploded mines that go off if you drift too close, it is not possible to Abzu. In the worst case, you get an electric shock that sends you tumbling through the water for a few seconds until you recover and get your bearings. No, this is a wistful, thoughtful kind of game: a digital sightseeing tour of an underwater kingdom that lets you marvel at the watery vistas and swim face-to-face with large whales. Like Flower and triptwo contemplative PlayStation games on which Abzu‘s creator Matt Nava has worked before, this is a game about experience rather than challenge, about the journey rather than the destination.
Sometimes Abzu has the atmosphere of a magical Disneyland ride, a ride on rails through vibrant scenes where you are free to pick out new details and wonders at every turn. The sense of enchantment is heightened by the compelling soundtrack by Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory, reminiscent of Disney’s 1940 film Fantasy, which mixed animated images with classical music. As you float in and out of jet streams, through billowing curtains of seaweed and over old bones licked white by the salt, the violins rise and fall to match your movements. While you break through the water with a show team of dolphins, a choir provides triumphant accompaniment. Reach the deepest parts of the sea and the soundtrack recedes, leaving nothing but the deep growl of the tides and the low pop of swaying bubbles leaking from the seabed. Abzu‘s soundtrack, both musical and natural, is exemplary.
The game’s greatest strength is the sense of aesthetic wonder it affords players. The ocean is teeming with life, including giant trevally, oceanic whitetip sharks, eagle rays, lionfish, large pulsating jellyfish and a thousand other species. The digital water is more abundant and diverse than any aquarium, and the chance to swim with all this unseen life feels rare and precious. It’s also not all natural and life here in the underwater world. There are pristine underwater temples, full of hieroglyphs (which, for the observant, offer clues to the game’s story). There are rusty chains and creaking gates, as well as more futuristic props: triangular structures set into the rock with unblinking red eyes. Its story, like its waters, gets darker the deeper you go.
There’s more to do than just drift and stare. Abzu is divided into discrete sections, each bookended by a visit to a mysterious temple. In general, the puzzles have a similar shape: follow chains or power lines from a closed door back through the water to where they can be rinsed or charged. Then you can move on to the next scene and the next. Find pedestals and you can pause to meditate on the scene, viewing your surroundings from the point of view of the local fish. You may even catch a glimpse of a shark feeding; this world keeps ticking regardless of your involvement. After all, you are just a visitor.
As you adjust over time to the game’s idiosyncratic rhythms, its unusual peaks and valleys, you never quite feel at home with the controls. Your diver, nimble and agile when gliding at high speed, becomes a more cumbersome tank in confined spaces or, when you temporarily leave the water to flip a switch. And despite the richness of the environment, the game can feel a little thin and repetitive after a while. Despite these reservations AbzuThe offer is tempting. Our world is largely mapped via Google’s satellites. There are few wonders and surprises that we can find here on solid ground. Not so when it comes to our oceans, with their unparalleled topography and mysterious schools and communities.
Abzu offers the chance to explore the unknown, not by searching the stratosphere for space, but by opening up an unknown universe just below the waves.
- Wonderful sense of discovery
- Exemplary soundtrack
- Charming images
The ugly one
- Feels thin and repetitive when played for a long time
Abzu is a beautiful audiovisual treat that offers little challenge but is big on wonder.
Simon Parkin is an award-winning writer and journalist from England and a regular contributor to, among others The New Yorkers, the guard, and Eurogamer. His latest book, Death by Video Game: Stories of obsession from the virtual frontline, was released last year. You can find him on Twitter @simonparkin.