Sometimes you don’t necessarily need a vast storyline to enjoy a video game. Oh, sure, that may make it seem shallow at first, but if the gameplay makes up for it, that’s not really a problem. Just take a look at the handful of arcade classics out there – Pac-Man, Tempest, what have you – and even more current favorites, like Journey, which told its tale without barely any hint of what would happen next. And, yet, you would still stay intrigued by its lovely visuals.
You’ll see a lot of that in common with Abzu, a game that relies more on style than substance. But what style it is. This is essentially an underwater adventure that asks you to occasionally solve puzzles and work your way through sea life as you explore to your heart’s content – sort of like Jacques Cousteau did so long ago, but with way more vibrancy. (Not that Jacques’ adventures were boring, mind you.)
The game has a similar set-up to Journey. You don’t really run into any perilous situations (even when you come across mines or some dangers like that, you barely get off with a light warning), but you have a vast amount of areas to explore, and things to find, like little automated assistants that can help you get through walls, and sea animals that you can cling on to, just to see where they go next. It’s like the underwater adventure you’ve always wanted to take, but without any severe danger of getting “the bends,” as it were.
While the game is a bit light on story – I still didn’t quite figure out what it was all about after three hours of play – it definitely makes up for it in ambience. Some of the surprises you’ll find beneath the sea are really quite cool, and can also help you in solving a puzzle or two along the way. There’s nothing mind-bendingly difficult here – in fact, this may be one of the better stress-relieving games put on the market. Try saying that for something like Tempest or Pac-Man.
The visuals are absolutely lovely. While not as solid as Journey’s conversion on PS4 (with 60 FPS speed compared to Abzu’s 30 FPS), the details here are still quite extraordinary. Try swimming through a school of fish and you’ll be taken aback at how lifelike they really are. In addition, the environments are equally stunning, and each one offers something new and unique – just like the real undersea world out there.
Of course, the game is backed by some solid soundtrack work by Austin Wintory. Just as he did for his award-winning Journey tunes, Wintory delivers a whole ocean worth of wonderful tunes that play along as you swim. They really provide a level of ambience I haven’t heard since Spencer Nilsen worked his magic on the Ecco games so long ago. The sound effects are good too, but the audio experience is all about the wondrous soundtrack.
As for the gameplay, there’s no genuine context to it, nor does there need to be. Swimming is handled in a very realistic – and easy to grasp – manner, and being able to go to the surface and do a trick or two, then head right back into your deep dive, is a nice treat. Sure, some of the perils may take a little bit to get around, but that just opens up more of your exploratory nature. I’m glad the game plays just as it should.
Despite its relatively short length (again, about three hours from beginning to end), Abzu does provide the option to go back in again and see what you missed, or simply goof off with the sea life. It’s definitely a game that’s well worth returning to, especially just to partake in the visuals and calm your nerves a little bit. Abzu is a magical game that’s simply made, but one that’s simple to take in and enjoy. Sometimes, it’s nice to have little things like that.