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Abzu (PlayStation 4) artwork

Abzu (PlayStation 4) review

"Abzű is a beautiful and emotive aquatic adventure, but sometimes lacks the confidence to swim too far from the boat."

Whatever creative medium you might choose to discuss, it's generally considered poor form to spend too much time extolling the virtues of one product while you are supposed to be talking about a different one. But when it comes to Abzű, Giant Squid Studios' aesthetically charged deep-sea adventure, it’s virtually impossible not to hold the game up against Journey. The latter was heralded as one of the finest efforts of its generation, and without it, Abzü would probably not even exist.

Abzű, the spiritual successor to Journey, is thematically quite similar to its source of inspiration and aims to build on its success. This no doubt sounds like great news to the latter game’s fans, but the tragedy is that by following Journey’s script so closely, the developers have built a game that finds its greatest strength also serving as an anchor that weighs it down.

Originally released in 2013 for PlayStation 3 and later ported to PlayStation 4, Journey had a profound effect on me. It made me think--and above all, feel--like few games before it had, to the point that I found myself genuinely wishing I could force each and every one of my non-gaming friends into a darkened room with a copy of the game and keep them there until they finished it. Journey proved that there is room in the world of big-budget, Subway sandwich-sponsored blockbuster video games for shorter, artistically driven outings designed to make players think and feel. It left me (and a great many other players) thirsting for more.

It's little wonder, then, that the E3 2014 announcement of Abzű--a game from a brand new studio founded by Journey's art director, Matt Nava--caused more then a few ripples in the gaming community. Abzű's setting couldn’t have been further removed from Journey's, swapping a barren desert for the deep blue sea. But Nava's Giant Squid Studios was working from a roadmap, one that specifically identifies video games as an artistic medium through which to deliver "beautiful, meaningful, and timeless experiences." Such a description could just as easily have been applied to Journey.

Much like its spiritual sibling, Abzű drops the player in the middle of its game world with very little fanfare or explanation. You control a curious, androgynous diver who has just regained consciousness in the middle of a vast, yet strangely inviting ocean. There's nothing nearby, except blue sky above and a layer of seaweed floating on the water’s surface. A handful of minimal directions--press this to dive; tap that to swim harder--are offered, and with nowhere to go but down, you quickly find yourself exploring underwater canyons, caves, and enormous expanses of open water that make you feel like you’ve just dropped off the edge of the world. Because you're accompanied by Journey composer Austin Wintory’s glorious orchestral soundtrack, it’s almost impossible not to find yourself in awe of the underwater world that Giant Squid Studios has built. I often paused the game for no other reason than to soak it all in.

The real star of the show here, though, is the sea life. Despite the inherent sense of loneliness that underwater environments are known to provoke in games, to say nothing of the fact that the diver you control has no real companions aside from a couple of small robots that can be recovered from the seabed in early sections of the game, Abzű's underwater world only rarely--and even then, very deliberately--feels lonely. This is a living, breathing ecosystem bursting with brightly coloured coral and giant, swaying kelp forests, with more fish shoaling and schooling on-screen at any one time than I have ever before seen in a game. Sea turtles will approach and ignore you as they see fit, giant manta rays glide along the sea floor while kicking up plumes of sand that sparkle in shafts of refracted sunlight, and before too long you’ll encounter dolphins, sharks, and whales of all sizes that will confidently size you up or allow you to swim alongside them, at least for as long as you can match their pace. The amount of visual detail really must be applauded, and the fact that it all moves along without any noticeable drops in frame-rate, even on the moderately powered PlayStation 4, shows that while Giant Squid Studios may be a relatively new outfit, it is home to a great deal of talent.

But there’s more to the Abzű experience than just taking in the sights. When you’re not exploring caverns, clinging to the back of a turtle, or zooming along in jet streams with pods of prancing dolphins and powerful orca, you start to notice the pieces of a story coming together. Clues as to your whereabouts and the role you will be expected to play come in the form of relics, crumbling mosaics and the remains of ancient temples that appear to have been built in honour of the sea creatures themselves, with the great white shark revered above all else and immortalised in numerous statues and busts. Before long, you feel the foreboding presence of a peculiar, almost alien life force, and the colourful underwater flora and fauna gradually give way to tight corridors with cold, metallic surfaces and jagged edges. Like Journey before it, Abzű makes death an impossibility, so the underwater adversaries you encounter are far from impassable (Giant Squid Studios wants players to see its games through to the very end, after all). Even so, the manner in which these beings telegraph their malevolent intent is in itself more than enough to convince players to steer well clear.

How, then, while possessing such beautiful environments, breathtaking aquatic encounters and deep-sea mystery, does Abzű not manage to swim out from under the shadow of its predecessor? Part of the issue stems from the fact that, despite the change of scenery and its infinitely more populated environments, a great deal of what Abzű has to offer will immediately feel familiar to anyone who has played Journey, almost to the point of distraction. Thematically, the two games echo one another, with a strong focus on discovery, the finite nature of life, and the importance of harmony with the natural world. That much is to be expected, of course, and is a welcome break from the plots of the majority of today’s triple-A releases. But a number of Abzű’s cleverly orchestrated set-pieces, and even the pacing of the game, feel uncannily similar to the experience you may have already had with Journey. Even when Abzű does break from the script, such as during a couple of brief sections wherein the player is required to step onto dry land, it all feels a little forced and, in truth, just isn’t all that much fun.

I suppose the main reason that Abzű doesn’t quite have the sort of impact that Journey had, however, is that Giant Squid Studios’ (admittedly admirable) goal of creating deeper, more meaningful gaming experiences hinges almost entirely on the player's ability to form an attachment to the protagonist and, on a deeper level, the game world itself. Abzű is without a doubt one of this year’s more enjoyable, not to mention visually impressive, rides so far, but that important feeling of attachment never really develops the way it should by the time the credits roll.

What Abzű does, it does well. On a technical and aesthetic level, the game is a real triumph, and if approached with the right mindset will prove to be an exhilarating, albeit short-lived, outing that any self-respecting gamer will be glad to have embarked upon at least once. It won’t, however, change your outlook on games as a medium for artistic expression, and it certainly won’t leave you wanting to push a controller into the hands of your technophobe friends and family. By choosing to create games of this kind, Giant Squid Studios have created a steep mountain--or perhaps in this case, a deep gorge--to conquer. While Abzű may not be the emotive masterpiece that some of us were hoping for, it nevertheless stands as a testament to the skill and ambition of this small studio, and is almost certainly a sign of good things to come.


otokonomiyaki's avatar
Freelance review by Philip Kendall (August 09, 2016)

Writer & video game junkie based in York, England. Read my game-related ramblings and ill-advised political rants on Twitter @otokonomiyaki.

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