Tea: Pure crystal-clear water (not salt water though)
Whenever a game is described as “like game X, but…” I immediately grow suspicious as this either means the game is a direct carbon copy or game journalism has finally breathed its last breath. The new indulgence in calling everything “like Dark Souls” is annoying enough and Abzu was often described as “Journey but in the ocean” and while this does not sound like a solid argument to make you play the game, I played Abzu none the less and can now explain why it is nothing at all like Journey but rather a game on its own.
Abzu starts with an unknown human-like protagonist drifting in the ocean. After waking, you explore the ocean to your hearts content, activate little eye-drone to help you clear the way, use special spots to release more fish into the area, or meditate on a rock to stalk on all the different types of fishes that are drifting about. The story of Abzu is told entirely without words, only visuals like ancient mosaics (you do know there are games beside Journey that do that, right?), and an astral(?) plane that sets new live forms free, like orcas or giant squids. Red mechanical pyramids are the big antithesis to the organic ocean both in materiality and colour, which plays a key role in the game. Colour indicates belonging, red is artificial and lifeless with its hard edges and metallic surfaces, blue is organic, fluid, round, and full of life, seeing as it is also the power that grants life in the first place. It is the tale of hubris of a once mighty civilisation and what brought it down; the social commentary is there but not too heavy-handed. Where the story goes from here is for you to find out.
– The game is also about putting more water into water, if that makes any sense… –
Let’s get my only gripe with the game out of the way first: control. Abzu does not play as smoothly as I would want it to. Navigating the ocean is not as fluid and elegant as it should be since often navigating towards specific fish can be a bit of a chore which is not helped by the fact that I still don’t understand whether the boost move stays on after holding it or whether I need to repress it, as I never felt much faster either way. Navigating while holding on to a fish is also a bit iffy as you need to constantly move the stick, otherwise the fish will just swim wherever it wants and you can imagine how much fun swimming straight ahead is while constantly having to move the stick around to suppress the weak mind of the ocean dweller. While the controls are far from perfect, they certainly do not break the game and once you have settled in with the awkward up and down movement, you can move about with relative ease. It is just a shame that by the time you have the controls down, the game is over. Depending on how long you meditate and simply swim with fishes the game can be over in a bit more than an hour, should you rush through, or a little over two if you want to find hidden collectibles or simply enjoy more time swimming with the fishes.
– While the game is low-poly, it is still a beauty to behold. –
Okay, next up is a part most people will disagree with me: I did not think the soundtrack was that good. Allow me to clarify: The soundtrack is well-made, fitting, and captures the weightless elegance it should, but it is also very one-dimensional. Light strings and singular high piano notes are the main ingredient for almost every single piece. There is only one song that stood out to me among my one-and-a-half-hour journey and that was because it was contextual and had a choir. If you told me that most of the other music is a loop of a 15 min piece, I would not have doubted you. It is a nice soundtrack to have running in the back while doing something else, in fact it is running right now as I am writing this, but it is not an album where I can name specific tracks and why the work so beautifully in the game at that specific moment.
– While Manta Rays are not as cool as squids, I still immensly enjoyed gliding around with them. –
Is Abzu a worthwhile experience then? That depends entirely on one thing: Do you like fishes and other sea creatures? I absolutely do and that is why Abzu was a wonderful time for me. I did not care much about collectibles or exploration but simply swimming or just watching fishes, this is something I could do for hours and hours. Holding on to a giant squid and being dragged around by it is a dream-like experience for me. Another personal favourite moment of mine is swimming through a giant swarm of fishes that are swirling around like a tornado and watching all the small fishes swim past me. It is hard to grasp what makes this so enjoyable, but if this sounds vaguely like something you would like, Abzu nails this feeling and scratches that itch with perfect precision.
Before I draw my conclusion, here is a little argument about why this is so different from Journey. Abzu is a game focused on interaction with the world and feeling, and being part of it, becoming one, if only temporary and revelling in the connection to the beings around and the world itself. Journey is about traversing a world rather than connecting with it, it is about transcendence and the brief glimpses of others you may have while traversing the world. It works both with isolation and companionship at the same time, whereas Abzu is very much focused upon showing that an individual is lost amidst the plurality of life. Now this may just be a difference in theme, but since these games are short and tightly focused, it makes an enormous difference. Apparently, something that is about a non-verbal story, with a light soundtrack, and a hint of spirituality is automatically like Journey. But the fact it that these comparisons do not do the games justice. If you approach Abzu with the mindset of wanting another Journey, you will probably end up feeling disappointed as one of Journey’s greatest moments was briefly interacting with another player which is absent here. But Abzu has fish, which is far better in my opinion. Yes, I would rather spend my time with a giant squid than another person. There, I said it.
– “A 10/10 experience, because Squids” – Mr Teatime –
Abzu is a meditative experience that defies classification and is held down by most people’s need to categorise every little thing they see. While the controls may not make your heart jump with the glee and the soundtrack did not really stick with me, the moment to moment experience is what makes this an absolute joy. In the end, it really comes down to whether you think simply drifting along with fishes sounds like an enjoyable experience to you. The story is there, waiting for you to unravel it, which is not a hard task, but swimming with fishes can carry the experience alone for you (as it did for me). While Abzu make lack depth (haha..), swimming along with low-poly fishes is sometimes all you want out of an experience. Also, as I feel I haven’t mentioned it enough: You can swim with a giant squid. A giant squid!
Image sources in order of appearance:
• https://i3.ytimg.com/vi/qopIFtn0vBo/maxresdefault.jpg (Last date of access: 15.07.2017)
• https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/tlaqv4ucDlFNJ65lYa9jzouXM_Q=/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/6875773/abzu_review_screen2.0.jpg (Last date of access: 15.07.2017)
• http://www.goombastomp.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/ABZUReview03.jpg (Last date of access: 15.07.2017)
• https://i.ytimg.com/vi/MfQyI9IxUIU/maxresdefault.jpg (Last date of access: 15.07.2017)