Expectations for art are often determined by who is involved in the creation. As someone who adored ThatGameCompany’s Journey, I was naturally excited when I heard that the critically acclaimed game’s art director and composer were teaming up for a brand new experience. Called ABZÛ, the debut title from developer Giant Squid is a gorgeous third-person adventure that allows gamers to explore the wondrous ocean.
From the opening sequence where I was floating in the sea waiting to take my first dive into the unknown depths, Matt Nava’s artwork is immediately impressive. ABZÛ isn’t a completely accurate interpretation of the ocean; instead, it’s meant to represent the ideal version of it, capturing all of the sense of wonder without any of the disappointing realities.
Unlike Afrika, the aquatic wildlife here isn’t modelled to a lifelike degree, and instead presents exaggerated versions of each sea creature, where each has been boiled down to just its most recognizable features. It’s a beautiful vision of a what a child might imagine the sea might look like, before they’ve ever put on scuba gear and explored it firsthand.
Giant Squid’s debut title isn’t slowed down by the realities of modern diving gear. There’s never a need to resurface, and exploration is never penalized. It was very interesting playing ABZÛ right after ADR1FT and seeing how these two similar exploration games differed in their design philosophy. ADR1FT realistically depicted space to the point where it actually became a boring setting and constantly penalized me for trying to explore since the constant threat of oxygen depravation was always looming. ABZÛ, meanwhile, paints a gorgeous, childlike vision of the wonders of the ocean and allowed me to check every corner of it without fear.
Much like Journey, ABZÛ is a very simple game to play. The player swims with the right trigger, and can interact with marked objects by pressing the square button. This gives the player a few more ways to interact with the world, but they aren’t ever mandatory. This is a game that people of any skill level can play and enjoy, and that’s great to see.
While strictly optional, the other abilities in the game are pretty rad. Holding the left trigger allowed me to hold onto larger sea creatures and go on a ride with them as they swam around the environment. I was also able to curl up into a ball and roll, which didn’t actually have any gameplay impact, but triggered nearby fish to also do a roll. It’s largely pointless, but that didn’t stop me from rolling every time I swam alongside a school of fish. There’s also the ability to swim faster, but I never saw the point in using it. I wanted to soak in every second of ABZÛ‘s world; the last thing I’d choose to do is speed through the game.
The gameplay consists of swimming around while activating switches and digging up little robotic helpers that will help you get past obstacles. Nothing here is very taxing and there are no puzzles that ever made me wish I had a guide to help me out. Instead, this is all about relaxing and seeing everything the gorgeous world has to offer.
What’s really impressive about ABZÛ is that after every 10 minutes of gameplay I would sit down my controller, stare at the screen and just soak everything in. I constantly thought that the game couldn’t get any prettier, and I felt that an early scene where I swam with a bunch of whales was going to be the peak. It wasn’t.
Another 10 minutes had passed and I had seen another, even more memorable scene. Giant Squid sets the bar high from the very beginning and manages to outdo themselves every step of the way. It’s a highly curated experience, but also one that is uniquely your own. One of my favorite moments was just spending 10 minutes watching fish interact with each other. I ended up learning about their species and watching the circle of life take place as small fish were gobbled up by bigger predators.
Much like a great piece of music, ABZÛ crescendos along, building to one final triumphant moment. The last few minutes of the game had me fully enraptured in an experience that left me feeling physically exhausted by the time the credits hit. This adrenaline dump was largely due to the game’s fantastic visuals, its understated yet incredible storytelling and a phenomenal soundtrack by Austin Wintory all coming together for one final explosive, sequence. This scene is one of the most memorable that I’ve ever played, and one I hope that every fan of gaming gets to experience.
I could lather ABZÛ with more praise and wax about its beauty, but there’s no way I could do it justice. Not only did it manage to live up to my high expectations, but the feeling of the experience lingers with me hours after finishing it. It’s a special kind of game that simply needs to be played to be believed.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version, which we were provided with.
ABZÛ simply has to be seen to be believed, as it's a real achievement for the video game medium.