**Minor spoilers for Abzu below**
“The story of ABZÛ is a universal myth that resonates across cultures. The name references a concept from the oldest mythologies; it is the combination of the two ancient words AB, meaning ocean, and ZÛ, meaning to know. ABZÛ is the ocean of wisdom.”
If you’ve played the games of thatgamecompany, particularly Flower and the critical darling that is Journey, then you’ll be right at home with Abzu. One could be forgiven for mistaking this as the next game from the indie company. This is both the game’s biggest strength and its greatest (and really only) weakness. In reality, Abzu is not the long-awaited follow-up to Journey. Rather, the art director of both Journey and Flower, Matt Nava, left thatgamecompany and opened his own studio, Giant Squid. Their first project: Abzu.
Abzu is a gorgeous and atmospheric diving simulator that takes the player deep under the ocean into a mysterious and mythical world. Most of the gameplay is built around exploring and moving between areas, making your way deeper into the ocean. But there is a storyline here — parts of the ocean are dying, and strange subaquatic machines have appeared. It is up to The Diver to restore life and beauty to the ocean.
Abzu is, in many ways, simply Flower and Journey combined and set underwater. Thematically, it tells the same story as the previous games: The rise of machines, the death of nature, the loss of self. Artistically, Abzu and Journey are strikingly similar, down to the design of the character’s face and eyes. Multiple levels and moments feel as though they were recycled directly from Flower and Journey. The main character even interacts with the world through voice, just like in thatgamecompany’s desert adventure.
But none of this is truly bad. Taking inspiration from some of the greatest games of the last console generation has only made Abzu a stronger game. Exploring the absolutely gorgeous ocean areas and swimming alongside the smallest fish and the largest whales is an almost religious experience. Movement is fluid and free, just as one would hope of an underwater adventure. And the moments pulled from the previous games are just as satisfying here as they were years ago.
There is even a large, threatening potential enemy — a Great White Shark who constantly threatens your progress. This is extremely similar to the stone creatures from the world of Journey. Though you can see the “twist” coming from miles (or leagues) away, the dynamic relationship with the Shark has a satisfying payoff and a nice, rewarding aspect towards the end of the game’s campaign.
Every aspect of Abzu is enhanced by the stunning music from the mind of Austin Wintory, the Grammy-nominated composer behind Journey. Wintory’s previous work was deservedly praised, but he has reached a new height with his score here. The music of Abzu is revelatory; the true narrator of the story of The Diver. Wintory takes the player on an aural emotional pilgrimage from the surface to the ocean floor: sweet when surrounded by beauty, chaotic when the ocean is stirring, victorious at the best of times. He uses the strings as a guiding hand, a harp ensemble as an ethereal essence and, in true climax, a choir to make the spirit rise. The music of Abzu is an undeniable success.
Abzu isn’t a long or large game. Most players will “complete” the main campaign by the 2 hour mark. And the main campaign is fun and satisfying, with a gorgeous final 15 minutes that will stick with you for days. But it’s clear that Abzu, just like Journey, is not about winning — it’s about the experience. You’ll want to revisit levels just to see a certain group of fish, ride a giant whale, or just explore a corner you missed before. Every corner of Abzu is bursting with beauty and detail.
In the same vein, Abzu falls well into a reoccuring modern discussion: Are walking simulators really “games?” Games like Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture popularized the genre of projects that focus less on combat, lives, and puzzle solving, choosing instead to focus on storytelling through the act of experiencing it. Abzu has, arguably, even less “gameplay elements” than Journey did, with the majority of the game built around swimming and exploring. The few puzzles present are often solved within moments. Gamers looking for a “real game” might be disappointed with the offering, particularly in the fact that there are no real consequences. There is no death or chance of losing. But Abzu is, through and through, an experiential game, and many gamers will find the joy in the tale of The Diver.
The only real downside of Abzu is that, for all of the great elements it pulls from Flower and Journey, this game exists in a post-Journey world. At this point, Abzu never really manages to offer anything truly new. This game won’t hit as hard as Journey because the gaming industry has already experienced those beats. The mystical realm, the themes of life and nature, even the way the game ramps up to the finale — it has all been done before. The setting is fresh and the liveliness of the ocean is absolutely endearing, but Abzu never manages to rise out of the shadow of its predecessor.
That being said, Abzu is an absolute must-own for any true video game fan. Whether or not it rises above the impact Journey left upon the industry, Abzu is a fantastic and gorgeous game with a story to tell and a world to share. Diving through those underwater areas is a resonant and profound adventure shared in the way only video games can. Those searching for the next level of experiential gaming will find it under the ocean of wisdom. Headphones recommended.
A PS4 review code for Abzu was provided by Giant Squid for the purpose of this review