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Abzu (PlayStation 4) artwork

Abzu (PlayStation 4) review

"Abzu is a worthwhile celebration of the ocean, but doesn't offer enough variety to transcend its chief inspiration."

In most cases, directly comparing two pieces of media only leads to frustration and disappointment. Turning creative expression into a zero-sum game invents binary judgments that are simply unnecessary at best and disingenuous at worst; just because one thing is Good doesnít mean something else has to be Bad. Judging something by another developerís standards is silly. It inevitably leaves the lesser work even worse off for reasons that have nothing to do with the thing being critiqued. Itís a needlessly oppositional tactic. The games industry isn't sports; multiple things can be good at the same time. Everyone and everything should be respected on their own respective merits.

In rare cases though, Itís impossible not to look at a game and think ďoh, you were just trying to make your own version of this other thingĒ. Case in point: Abzu. You only need to see the game in action for a few seconds to understand that the first release from Giant Squid Studios is deeply indebted to the output of thatgamecompany, Journey in particular. Abzu is clearly designed to dredge up the same emotions that Journey did so expertly years ago. It too utilizes a dreamlike rendition on the natural world, not especially detailed but brightly colored and deeply evocative. There are hints of mythological narrative that strays the line between fantasy and reality and is never explicitly explained, mostly through cave paintings from a dead society. Composer Austin Wintory, who won several awards for his brilliant Journey score, even made the soundtrack. These similarities are not coincidental. The creator and art director for the game, Matt Nava, worked at thatgamecompany, and actually pitched this game to the studio while he worked there before leaving to start Giant Squid Studios and make it himself. The cues are so numerous that theyíre impossible to ignore. And this blatant comparison point only makes one aware of the many ways Abzu canít quite reach that standard. Abzu is an impressive feat in several ways, but it canít quite hit the heights of its chief inspirator.

Abzuís abstractions have some grounding in our reality. The title comes from Sumerian mythos, where it was the given name for the freshwater deity that combined with the ocean god Tiamat to from life as we know it. Thatís as specific as the game gets, story-wise.

Following in the tradition of Jenova Chenís storytelling style, Abzu favors opacity over frankness, telling its story through images and moments rather than words. The game begins with your unnamed player character waking up in the middle of a not-quite endless ocean. Its character design could be the physical embodiment of an ancient spirit or a futuristic spacesuit. It could be the very beginning of time or somewhere in the post-apocalypse. Thereís something on the edge of the horizon. Maybe itís civilization, maybe itís a voluminous mountain range, weíll never know. Details like time and place arenít important in this world. The only thing that matters is the ocean, and the near mystical power it contains.

Abzuís mindset is one of zen-like contentedness. The game moves at the languid pace of a gentle tide. Thereís no imminent danger to combat against or race against time to save the world. The entire point of the game is to luxuriate in its peaceful vibe. Itís an easy sell for Abzu to make. The water is crystal clear, the colors vibrant, the range of aquatic species scurrying around you plentiful. Itís utopian while maintaining roots in something recognizable. One of Abzuís most prominent features is your characterís ability to meditate, which you can do by sitting on these unexplained statues of stone sharkmen littered throughout the environment. Stay a while, and youíll see the food chain play out with a relaxed frankness that treats death as a natural consequence of life instead of a tragedy.

Abzuís connection to our world gets more tenuous over time. The imagery becomes increasingly surreal as you explore dead cities littered with statues dedicated to underwater life and eventually find some form of opposition that is probably a commentary on the industrialization of nature that has led to natural disasters becoming more common and more destructive with each passing year. Itís not a coincidence that the gameís few ominous moments involve hulking, mechanical objects. The game takes on a darker color palette during these sequences, but it just doesnít register as threatening. This is Abzuís biggest flaw: It never coalesces into something bigger than the sum of its parts.

Abzu is great to look at; itís less enjoyable when you have to play it. Ironically, the game suffers from a lack of fluidity. The animations of the diving and swimming are impressively elaborate, but frustratingly slow in action. Every movement is just sluggish enough that you think about how slow youíre moving constantly. The resistance of the water is probably realistic (I canít swim so I have no idea), and the swimming is likely designed this way so you take in your surroundings at a more deliberate pace, but considering how fantastical this game gets at times, they couldíve let the reigns go a little more for the sake of gameplay. You can speed things up by pressing the right trigger to get a boost, but that doesnít last long enough to help matters.

There just arenít enough ways to meaningfully interact with the world. I donít need some intricate combination of systems to enjoy a game, but Abzuís problem is that none of these actions ever feel momentous in the way you want it to. It feels less like a game and more like an interactive screensaver most of the time. Aside from meditating, you can also activate these dormant underwater drones that can offer a light source or cut through obstructing foliage, or take other animals for a ride around their animation loop. Breaching the surface while holding on to the side of a whale is clearly great, but itís not enough to change the pace. Your progress is dictated by completing the same objective - invoking the spirit of some ancient water gods, I think? - five times and then youíre at the endgame. There are moments that rise above the relative tedium - You get to ride inside a jetstream a couple times, collecting schools of fish as you go. Itís the most purely fun part of the game, and itís basically a palette swap of sliding through the sand moment in Journey.

Abzu obviously canít have the same range of environments (or that ingenious use of co-op), but the developer couldíve done more to make the game more impactful. The gameís climax is blissful and obscenely bright. Itís gorgeous, but it doesnít resonate as any more novel than ďman, the ocean is neatĒ.


sam1193's avatar
Community review by sam1193 (October 02, 2018)

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Masters posted October 02, 2018:

There's some great writing here. And the review has certainly done its job by deterring me from ever considering playing the game. This line is especially salient:

It feels less like a game and more like an interactive screensaver most of the time.

No thanks!

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