What makes a game truly stand out from the crowd?
Is it well-developed gameplay? Masterful storytelling? Eye-popping visuals? Believable and relatable characters? Usually, it’s a mixture of everything. But not always; sometimes a game can be a memorable experience without some of the key elements we’ve come to expect to find in the most defining and groundbreaking games. Abzû is the perfect example: there’s not much in the way of narrative and characterisation going on, but this is a game that still, somehow, demands to be played.
Thrown into a vast ocean as soon as you click “new game”, you’ve no idea what’s going on. A brilliant blue sky surrounds you, and a calm ocean wave laps against your shoulders. A few scarce button prompts pop up on screen to guide you on your way: R2 to dive, X to dash, square to interact. That’s it. Now you’re on your own. But who are you? Even the protagonist is shrouded in mystery; male or female? human or machine? Ultimately though, does it even matter? Your goal or purpose is never made very clear, and as a result there’s really only one objective to focus on: move forward, try to make some sense of the world you’ve been thrown into, and take in the scenery around you.
And what scenery it is. Abzû is, ubdoubtedly and unabashedly, one of the most visually stunning games I’ve ever been lucky enough to feast my eyes upon. Though understated in technical design – Abzû doesn’t try to look photorealistic and instead embraces a dreamlike surrealism – every element is a joy to behold; masterfully designed and stitched together. Every last individual frame could be an incredible work of art in its own right; each area you come across is more awe-inspiring than the last. An incredible palette of colours have been painstakingly chosen to create atmosphere and ignite emotions, with each location having its own distinct mood and tone. After five minutes of swimming around, absorbing your surroundings, it no longer matters that you’re not sure what you’re meant to be doing; taking in the impeccable visuals alone feels more than worthy of your time.
Accompanying those near-perfect visuals is an equally astounding soundtrack. Austin Wintory’s masterful and emotive score is ultimately the perfect accompaniment and I find it hard to imagine that any other musical work could fit Abzû quite as well as his does. Each individual melody is brilliantly composed in keeping with the environment; the soundtrack is hauntingly beautiful from start to finish.
With no clear goal besides move forward, explore and discover, it isn’t too long before small pieces – albeit somewhat abstract pieces – start to come together to help you make sense of your situation. There are small pools to interact with, which will release new fish into your immediate environment. At regular intervals, you’ll find portals that will transport you to a surreal temple-like environment where you’ll release bigger sea creatures back into the waters before being put back in the water yourself. You’ll find small drone-like robots who’ll offer assistance on your journey by unblocking pathways, and there’ll be some light puzzles to solve along the way. Not much of it ever makes clear sense, but you’ll not mind when it looks this good.
Abzû‘s performance is fantastic, too. At times, there are literally thousands of fish on screen; all shapes and sizes, swimming around you in every which direction; shoals and schools of fish swimming together whilst larger predators roam like the lone wanderers they are. Constantly, there is so much going on around you; plants move independently from each other in the sway of the water, parting gently as you pass through them. Fish jump majestically out of the water, causing ripples across the surface. Abzû is a true microcosm of ocean life – and despite the incredibly rich environments, the game’s performance never falters. The frame rate remains consistently smooth, and even better, there are no load times: from start to finish, you’re never taken out of the experience that Abzû creates so brilliantly. It’s impossible not to get immersed in its fantastical world.
There are, of course, some downsides. The nature of the game means it’s not for everyone. The vagueness and lack of narrative may not offer enough direction for some players seeking a more linear, solid experience. It’s certainly not a title for thrillseekers either; Abzû is a subdued, deep and raw experience, but it’s not packed with action; stick to Call of Duty if you need your fix of running and gunning. The length of the game is a little disappointing too, although expected given creative director Matt Nava’s background with Flower and Journey. You’ll complete Abzû in around two or three hours, but my, what a glorious two or three hours they will be. For those completionists amongst us, there are at least some collectibles to hunt for to expand your playing time somewhat.
Rather than a game, Abzû is best considered an experience; an audiovisual tour de force that will take you on a journey of delight and wonder. It’ll toy with your emotions and it’ll constantly amaze, if you open your mind and let it in. If you approach Abzû expecting a classic video game experience in terms of gameplay, then chances are you’re going to be disappointed. But if you forget, for just a moment, those preconceived notions of what a “video game” actually means, then Abzû could be something truly special.