Games often attempt to tackle the unpredictable mystique of the sea. Most of the time, they fall short of truly adapting the ebb and flow and end up producing a lifeless paddling pool experience. I'm here to tell you that ABZÛ, the latest from Journey and Flower alum Matt Nava, is certainly not that.
The name ABZÛ derives from early Babylonian scripture, referencing the god of fresh water, or in the more literal sense, an "ocean of wisdom". This is merely the tip of the inspired iceberg that makes up this gem of a game. Let's dive into it.
Firstly, we must talk about the visuals. This is perhaps the most immersive aesthetic I've had the pleasure to explore. From gloom-ridden caverns to appropriately zealous basins teaming with life, the visual style does not skip a beat. A smattering of Mesopotamian mosaics adorn the walls of the sparsely littered architecture in ABZÛ, a gorgeous change of palate that pushes this game beyond its already established level of artistic merit. The level of beauty achieved from the low-poly textures here is something to behold. It's clear that there was a level of synchronicity between the art design and gameplay too. The protagonist often operates ancient underwater machinery that feels like an asset of the environment, not a puzzle piece.
ABZÛ's visuals make for a tranquil experience, but there is so much more at stake to compliment its beauty. The score of the game, composed by Austin Wintory, is radiant and emotional. It wraps every blissful discovery in a sonic blanket, letting you sink even deeper into serenity. Wintory is the fabulous composer of Journey and The Banner Saga, and his wealth of experience is felt when you're exploring the ocean. Though there are few tense moments in ABZÛ, the uncomfortable situations you find yourself in are scored accordingly. It transforms every one of the game's great moments into a memorable scene.
The narrative of ABZÛ is a succinct and compelling tale of exploration. It doesn't say much, but it doesn't need to say anything when you're already caught in its mesmerizing net. There's a short industrial interlude in the middle of the game that I was at first skeptical of. It seemed needless to pivot into a radically different environment, but by the end of the game it's resonance is explained. The same goes for the shark, who acts as the white rabbit for the player, a malignant presence that is always one step ahead in the game's early areas. These two elements go hand in hand, really putting me at odds. I didn't understand the need for this game to have even a slightly ambitious narrative. I thought it would overshadow the simplistic but effective game hiding underneath. Gladly, ABZÛ handles it with flair, and even manages to pull off some heartfelt moments of chemistry that don't feel out of place.
The game also controls like a dream, with your diver wistfully caressing reeds and having his momentum tested by urgent sea currents. The fluid dynamics and the subtlety of movement from all parties in this game is astonishing, and a real benchmark for gameplay. You'll forget the controller is even there. The puzzles in the game, while at points rather similar, function in a way that doesn't dose you with too much interaction but instead feels grounded and natural in a world of ABZÛ's kind. There is no way to include too much complexity in this game without jolting you out of its spell, and I think the ability of the developers to "let it be" is one of it's strongest overall points.
With the game being easily completed in a few hours, some may understandably be at odds with the price point. If the three and a half hours I spent weren't such a memorable sensory overload, I'd be inclined to ward you away, but fortunately, it is worth every penny. Journey was very similarly priced, and this contends with it, but also stands on its own two feet in a meaningful way. Much like every work of art, it has flickers of its creator's history, but not so much that it feels sickly. Matt Nava and his colleagues clearly have a knack for crafting magnificent worlds, and ABZÛ is one of them.
Even if you do conclude the game posthaste, the meditation system allows you to slink back to your favorite areas of the game to take a closer look at the phenomenal sea life. Seashell collectibles also feature around stages, mitigating the need for some replay value. Even so, there will definitely be players who will want to dive in multiple times to experience this game's fully realized world.
If you're looking for a relaxing, all-encompassing experience that is both meaningful and fleshed out, look no further than ABZÛ. This game is art, and not something to pass by.
ABZÛ was reviewed on PC (Affiliate) via Steam with a copy provided as part of our partnership with Games Republic. It is also avialable on PlayStation 4.
A pinnacle of aesthetic design and the best use of the Unreal Engine to date, ABZÛ is an unmissable underwater romp.