Over the course of gaming history, few aspects have become collectively hated as much as “water levels.” Swimming in games is rarely fun and instead filled with meters to keep track of, annoying controls and a general lack of compelling gameplay. These moments are basically thrown in instead of getting the attention they deserve. That’s in no way the approach that the developers behind Abzu took. Giant Squid Studios have crafted a game about diving throughout a vast oceanic environment that never feels contrived or unenjoyable. How? It’s simply a result of a team that has thought carefully about bringing the joy and grandeur they feel while diving to the rest of us.
First off, you won’t find and breathing-based meters while playing. The playable diver can simply swim at will for hours on end underwater without ever needing to worry about coming up for air, collecting canisters, or any other contrived mechanisms. Another huge plus is that she’s able to move freely without worrying about the density of water or gravity in general. Spinning about and swimming in any fashion works without issue. Players are basically given every instance to feel that this underwater landscape is as freeing as any land-based game. Only this time everything is on a larger scale because you can swim anywhere within the watery environment.
So, what’s your task in Abzu? Aside from exploring the environment you’re also collecting drones which have gotten stuck throughout. After finding one they can be used to mine special minerals when a deposit is discovered. Discovering the reasoning behind all this mineral farming and the like becomes apparent through play. It appears the story of this world and the diver is revealed without narration. Instead, the world is telling its story to you, leaving certain parts to be filled by the players’ understanding. This is a very difficult thing to do, but considering we have talent from the same team that brought us Journey, they’re very likely up to the task.
Speaking of Journey, the sense of scale definitely feels similar despite the change in environment. Throughout the demo there were definitely similar scenes of monumental scale. The world itself is just so gorgeous. As you swim through the beautiful blue water you’ll see things like schools of fish swimming throughout dense kelp. Other times, huge manta rays simply glide about majestically. Getting a look at the light rays as they penetrate the water, too, is a stunning effect. Abzu is a bit more cartoonish, but it’s definitely aided by the bright coloration and simplification of real underwater life.
Thus far Abzu probably sounds like a super chill experience. On one hand that’s actually true. There’s no death state to be found in the game because game over states tend to frustrate players. However, the ocean still confers some danger. For example, early on in the demo a great white shark showed its predatory nature by eating one of the diver’s drones. It may not have been the diver herself, but it still showed that this is not “your” space. With that said, the developers intend to show the shark as a multifaceted creature instead of the simple “killing machine” portrayal of most media.
I wholeheartedly believe fans of Journey out there will find that Abzu scratches that same vast exploration itch along with its subtle, visually-presented narrative. There’s also the potential for a much larger group to flock around the game once it launches on PS4 and PC. My personal hope? That we can actually see the team jump in with virtual reality headsets — as it would make perfect sense to immerse players fully into the well-crafted, wondrous oceanic landscape.