Did you ever go through a phase of telling everyone you want to be a marine biologist? Do you think games are art, and would love nothing more than to explore a virtual 3D display? Do you enjoy puzzling over clues and coming up with your own theories about what a game’s story and meaning is? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, ABZÛ, from Giant Squid Studios, is an experience for you.
It quickly becomes clear that, despite everything else, your real goal in ABZÛ is to swim around and look at as many beautiful things as possible. This game looks so amazing that the most difficult part of writing this review was deciding on which of my many screenshots to include. There are various puzzles that must be solved in order to progress through the game, but since these are simple and there is no danger or pressure placed on you, the focus is always kept on rewarding exploration with beautiful visuals. ABZÛ could even double as an educational tool, because you can catch a ride with, or view in meditation, hundreds of species of marine life. While interacting with them, you are told their names and get to see a close-up of the animal.
The game is paced extremely well, and the gameplay moves smoothly between the slow exploration segments and the faster and more exciting parts where you’re swimming while being pulled along quickly by the current. The soundtrack is very similar to Journey (which was made by some of the same people), but it fits the environment and mood of ABZÛ perfectly as well.
The story is simple, yet engaging, and able to be interpreted in a variety of ways. Throughout the game you build a friendship with a great white shark, and given how much flak this species usually gets from various forms of media, I thought this was a good choice. I also think the theme of revitalisation in this game may carry messages about environmental conservation, but this is never in your face, nor is it insincere. After all, everything is up to the player’s interpretation. All the game does is show you these colourful environments and species of marine life. However, given what is happening to the Great Barrier Reef and the ongoing issues with overfishing all over the world, I think it’s a timely message.
As one might expect from a game set underwater, the controls are a little difficult to get used to. They did work well, though I felt they weren’t really explained very well at the start of the game. For example, I had to discover how to swim really fast on my own. On a controller, you need to hold down the right trigger to dive under the surface and to propel the diver along. For me, this meant I was holding down the right trigger more often than not. I couldn’t help but think it might have been better to have the player hold a button to stop moving, instead.
A consequence of this game being all about visuals was that I found myself wrestling with the camera a lot. Sometimes it felt like the game would want me to focus on a certain spot, but I wanted to check out the environment around me, so it ended up being a real struggle to look at anything other than what the game wanted to be framed perfectly. I can appreciate the art and beauty of this game, but for a title that’s meant to be all about exploration, I felt like I was on rails an awful lot.
I also had a few minor technical issues during the meditation sequences. In these parts, you can sit for as long as you like and use the directional buttons to switch between observing different species. Some of the observable fish would swim outside of the actual level, so you could see fish swimming in the untextured vacuum of space. I’m not sure if it’s a problem with the AI, or with how the levels were constructed, but it’s quite jarring to be drawn out of an otherwise seamless experience in that way.
ABZÛ only took me a little under two hours to finish the first time, and I think for a game based entirely on moving around and looking at things, that’s probably a good length for it. I personally think two hours of content is a little short for $20 game, however, it is the kind of game that is absolutely worth playing again and again. I went through again almost as soon as I finished it the first time to look for more clues about the story, and for the collectables and achievements. I can definitely see myself going through my favourite parts again in the future when I feel like playing something relaxing.
ABZÛ is a gorgeous exploration game for all ages and gaming skill levels. It does have its technical flaws, but it remains engaging despite them. The experience is short, given the price of the game, but if you’re looking for something beautiful to explore and you enjoy finding collectables and achievements, you will definitely play this one through more than once. If you’re looking for a game on the more artistic end of the spectrum, ABZÛ is definitely a title worth checking out.