Abzû might as well have been the Titanic, as it has been sitting on the seabed that is my Switch library for months. Over a year ago, this was a recommendation by two popular YouTube channels that insisted people played it. Well, I did.
It’s like when you see Star Wars for the first time, Citizen Kane or <ahem>, Tiger King. Everyone is or has been talking about it; you put it off then when you finally succumb, you regret not seeking it out sooner.
Abzû, from Giant Squid Studios, isn’t on par with any of those titles, but it still does warrant the time to play. It’s more of an experience than a game, however, so you can make your mind up as to whether it’s as good as ‘they’ say it is.
Well, I’m not ‘they’, I’m just your average billionaire playboy.
A Snorkel Is Required
So, what’s the setup up in Abzû? Exploration. That’s the name of the game, and that’s precisely what you do: explore. There’s no introductory story that your father, Poseidon, has left you the sea on his death bed, or you’re seeking treasure like some second rate Lara Croft. You don a snorkel and swim.
There are a few tooltips along the way – basic stuff like how to swim which is critical for the game, though you could probably work it out. Abzû isn’t a complicated game, nor difficult at that. The concept is to experience the oceans, countless underwater species and vegetation and tune yourself in.
In some ways, you could argue that the game attempts to get you to be one with nature as there are points a la Assassin’s Creed where you can climb(?) onto a monument and enter a meditative state. These meditative states are mostly cutscenes of various schools of fish, watching the way they interact with one another.
Abzû is a game about observations and watching the behaviours of underwater life and getting up close. It’s the closest you’ll currently get to being submerged without actually doing it, or playing a similar VR title.
The graphics are somewhat simplistic, but they have an Ico charm to them – the protagonist of the title being unidentifiable other than their eyes hidden in the shadows. Though the graphics are a little reserved, before long you’re absorbed by your surrounding and forget you’re playing a game. That wasn’t my first impressions, however.
When I first booted up Abzû, I only gave it about 10-15 minutes. I felt a little bored, and when you have so many titles to sort through, you regrettably become dismissive of some games more than you should. That said, I just found swimming around a small play area releasing fish into the wild and watching them swim was just a little too flat.
Deeper Than You Think
Clearly, that wasn’t enough time, and I knew I’d be back. On the second playthrough, I found an area that opened up another section, then everything changed. These worlds felt huge and alien-like as the ocean should be. Though I could see the seabed at all times, the environments felt like they had a lot of depth.
Once you get swept up in a current with various schools swimming alongside including dolphins and killer whales, there was a sense of urgency, but I never felt unease as there’s no predators or threats that would cause you to drop in health or struggle to get past a section.
So there is a goal here other than swimming about. There are these out-of-sight locations that when you interact with them, they release a species out into the wild as if they were captive. The former ominous and Dark Souls-like space grows in intensity as plants grow, various breeds of fish appear out of nowhere, and it feels like Free Willy on acid. A lot is happening, but everything is tranquil.
When it comes to the gameplay, Abzû is pretty dull. All you do is swim, hit a few switches, avoid a few mines and occasionally rise to the surface. But it’s all good. The ambience it creates with the calm and relaxing soundtrack make Abzû feel more like a therapy session to allow you to unwind.
Forget Netflix and chill; it’s Abzû and chill. I’m aware of the connotations.
Like a good meditative session, Abzû is hit and miss. Sometimes you have moments of transcendence, other times a feeling of ease, then occasionally nothing. My first experience was the latter, and you could argue that I was judging it on the gameplay. If that was the case, Abzû doesn’t do great. It’s pretty monotonous.
Then again, that’s what it’s like to have fish. I have a marine setup, and when I look at the actions of the fish compared to my dog, I can see why I have a dog. However, there are times when you can sit and look at the fish tank for five minutes, look up at the clock, and an hour has passed, but there’s that feeling of content. It won’t change your life, but it makes you feel good. That’s what Abzû is.