A Journey Through The Deep
Reviewed on PS4
Some thousands of years before you and I and our current civilization existed, there were Mesopotamians. These Mesopotamians, according to myths and history classes and old textbooks, were people born of the river; their god Ea (or Enki), one of the three most powerful gods of their pantheon. This god, a patron of the ancient city Eridu, resided in the Ocean Below. To the Mesopotamians, the Ocean Below delivered fresh, clean water to all of their wells. This oceanic deity, the Ocean Below, was known as the Abzu. The Mesopotamians worshiped the Abzu, for it gave them water for drinking, bathing, farming, and the like. Abzu means “to know ocean,” with ab meaning “ocean” and zu meaning “to know.” Giant Squid takes this ancient history and illustrates it expertly in their game, ABZU, as you certainly get to know the ocean.
ABZU is a diving simulation with an ethereal narrative. Placed in the wetsuit of The Diver, you explore an ocean akin to the Atlantic. Swimming alongside aquatic life—both flora and fauna—you are tasked with diving deeper to determine just what you are and just what the ocean is. Though tranquil and alluring, the narrative has some astral and somber undertones, creating a beautiful juxtaposition between light and dark themes. Surprisingly, there is no voice acting or writing whatsoever; the lack of voice acting and writing only strengthens the narrative. Although The Diver never mutters a word, you connect to her on a human level—and that is the most impressive thing a game can do, get you to connect with a silent protagonist.
The narrative is bolstered by the magnificent score. Austin Wintory is some kind of Composition God: once again, he delivers a composition that is both dense and airy simultaneously. During the rush of ocean currents the orchestra speeds up and crescendos to an explosive flurry of cello, brass, and viola. During the serenity of still water the orchestra slows down and decrescendos to a harmony of flute, harp, and viola. Peppered throughout the impressive orchestral arrangements are nondescript vocalizations that are both beautiful and haunting. Wintory knows when tension needs to be created, and he knows when pensiveness needs to be requited. Swimming around to this soundtrack is exquisite—and downright calming as hell.
"The narrative has some astral and somber undertones, creating a juxtaposition between light and dark themes."
ABZU is not only a beautiful sounding game, it is also a beautiful looking game. Rendered in a low polygonal design, Giant Squid have created an enrapturing gameplay experience in the choice of color palette and physics. As you dive deeper into the ocean, the hue of the blue in the sea gets darker. The flora and the fauna found in the game are gorgeous: pinks for coral are expertly shaded, greens for seagrass are highlighted to create realism, grays for sand float in the water—the effect of deep sea diving is on full display and utterly believable. This design is furthered by the research done by Giant Squid: the aquatic life in the ocean are based on real, aquatic life. So if you have an affinity for oceans, you’ll recognize a lot of the animals and plants in ABZU. This attention to detail is what grounds ABZU‘s fictional and mythic world in reality, oscillating between the ethereal and the real.
The mechanics are simple. There’s a button to dive. There’s a button to swim faster (they call it a “boost,” which is an odd, antiquated gameplay trope) There’s a button to somersault. There’s a button to interact with objects in the sea. The left stick is to control The Diver. The right stick is to control the camera. And that’s it—there really is nothing else to the gameplay, aside from learning to swim. A small part of the charm of ABZU‘s gameplay comes from the incredibly simple, pick-up-and-play mechanics. However, a larger part of ABZU‘s charm comes from the interaction between The Diver and the oceanic wildlife. (Think of Ludacris’ “Stand Up”: When I move you move / Just like that.) When you flip, the fish flip with you. When you somersault, the fish somersault with you. When you interact with lost drones, the drones interact with you, granting you passage to other zones or letting out quick musical tones as you do. This interaction is truly adorable and simply stunning when you have herds of different colored fish flipping with you in solidarity. It’s like water aerobics.
"This attention to detail is what grounds ABZU's fictional and mythic world in reality."
ABZU isn’t without faults, however. For being a relatively short game—at approximately two to three hours in length—and for being a relatively small game—at an estimated 2GBs on the hard drive—ABZU has excruciatingly long load times when traveling from one zone to the next. (Zones are indicated by a large, steel (?), triangular door.) Additionally, the game’s frame rate takes a slight hit when either swimming into a family of fish or swimming into fish while riding one of the many currents. Since both of these tasks happen frequently in the game, you’ll encounter long load times and chugs rather often. To be frank, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given the simplicity of the game’s design—both in its soundscape (not score) and aesthetics.
ABZU is an exceptional game. One of both mystery and intrigue, timidity and ferocity, confusion and clarity. I am far too afraid to deep sea dive. Call me a chicken, but I don’t want to risk coming into contact with something that is just as afraid of me as I am of it. Fear can incite spontaneous attack, and many fish in the sea are double—if not more—my size. ABZU, however, delivers the thrill of deep sea diving without the immediate harm associated with it. Still, Giant Squid made sure to incorporate a sense of fragility while playing; the final moments of the game are the most beautiful and haunting I’ve experienced in a while. ABZU is going to get quite a few comparisons to Thatgamecompany’s Journey. In truth, though they are very much the same game with a similar experience, I think this is better. And that’s saying something.