Review In Short
Ben says: "Utterly sublime underwater simulator with near perfect art direction. Whilst it is short, it is also more fair to judge this as an "experience" rather than as a game. I'm hoping we'll be looking at it on the Shy Guys YouTube channel soon..."
I’m going to start this review with a warning that I am likely to overuse the word “experience”. In the past, games were games; there was usually something to kill, rescue, or race whereas the modern indie game is an “experience” in which you don’t really do anything but admire the view and piece some semblance of a story together. That’s fine, and ABZÛ is a beautiful example of this style, but I’d definitely call it an experience rather than a game in the traditional sense.
ABZÛ had been on my radar for a little while after hearing good things about it on the PC Gamer UK podcast and I eventually received a copy for Christmas. It is described by the developer, Giant Squid, as being a “beautiful underwater adventure that evokes the dream of diving”. The name is ostensibly derived from “the two ancient words AB, meaning ocean, and ZÛ, meaning to know. ABZÛ is the ocean of wisdom”.
You play as a diver cruising around the sea bed and can spin, boost, and interact with objects. If you boost towards the surface, you’ll leap from the water before splashing back down giving you a brief glimpse of the still waters above. There are eight thematically different areas that you’ll progress through in a linear fashion; whilst you can’t swim backwards, you can choose to go back to any unlocked area from the menu. As you swim, you’ll discover all kinds of mysterious things, interact with thousands of sea creatures, and gradually unpack a story that could be about environmentalism, friendship, or whatever your interpretation may be (it is never fully explained as these things seldom are).
The biggest draw of this experience is the sheer beauty of it. Matt Nava (the Art Director for Journey) has done a fantastic job at building an underwater world that isn’t just murky blue; areas blossom as you swim through them and there is an enormous variety of sea life that gets larger and larger until you are cruising along with sperm whales.
In many ways, ABZÛ is a glorified aquarium simulation; you can “meditate” at certain points that allow you to just watch the fish go by and see the names of each species. Whilst it is a peaceful way to pass the time, you’ll also witness predation as eels swallow smaller fish whole. There were several times when I would just sit down and admire the work that must have gone into the realistic shoaling.
“If I could swim with the dolphins…”
The creatures aren’t meant to just be looked at, however; you can cling to the larger species (like rays, turtles, and squids) and then control them to a certain degree. Similar to your diver, you can boost towards the surface and leap out of the water at which point others of the same species will follow. I spent a very happy 5 minutes jumping and diving with a pod of dolphins like Gerald from South Park!
There is more to see underwater than just the sea life with 19 secret seashells to find and 12 meditation statues. In addition, there are 20 hidden pools to activate (which introduce new fish to the area) and multiple secret areas to discover including a rather adorable arctic region complete with sleeping polar bear. There are achievements to unlock for each of these things as well as progressing through the main areas and interacting with certain creatures.
In terms of the story, I got a little confused as to what was going on more than once. There are little robot scuba things that open doors for you, a whole alien pyramid arc, and sometimes you’ll end up in a weird dream world where you unlock some sort of energy ball as if it was one of the spiritual stones from Ocarina of Time. That said, each area is so varied (especially as you near the end) that it doesn’t really matter what is going on; it just fun to see and explore it.
Whilst I wouldn’t necessarily call them puzzles, there are a few moments in the game where you’ll be blocked from progressing unless you perform certain actions (usually pressing a button in two different places which are fairly obvious). Whilst I think the game side of things may have benefited more from some deeper puzzles, that may have been at the expense of enjoying the surroundings.
My only real criticism is that ABZÛ is very short coming in at around 2 hours in length. That may be too little for some people at a cost of £15. For my own part, I think it is worth the price just to see what truly perfect art direction looks like.
Whilst I don’t think I’ll be diving back any time soon to find all of the secret shells I missed or to sit and meditate, it is definitely a game I’d show to friends and recommend if you want to try something a little bit different. I can’t wait to experience whatever Giant Squid work on next.