Abzû is what would happen if you took a Miyazaki film and distilled it down into its most basic elements, and then attached simple gameplay elements and choices to it. It is a game of elegant simplicity that will give you back as much as you put into it. It relies on the wonderment that comes with being immersed in a weird and strange environment without much guidance.
You are given a sandbox to explore, a loose but defined path to follow, and then Abzû let’s you make of it what we will. You can choose to move quickly from area to area unlocking pieces of the slowly expanding puzzle before you, or you can linger in each place to explore the nooks and crannies for secrets, or even just to float in the water and watch the sea life flow around you. In all likelihood you will have done all three multiple times by the time you complete the short, but satisfying, adventure.
There is a story to Abzû that is slowly told throughout your journey, but it is never explicitly explained. I suspect that if you were to take two people who played Abzû and had them each describe that story you would get two distinctly different answers. Some pieces would no doubt line-up, but many others could be quite different. The story of Abzû is told through pictographs that you occasionally find on undersea ruins, but there is little context to them and it is up to you to give them meaning. That is a little easier on a second playthrough once you have experienced more of the game, but trying to puzzle it together the first time isn’t going to get you far.
Each area you visit is distinct, and eventually you start to realize that what you see in the environment is a reflection of actions taken long ago. The first few levels are bright, colorful and filled with playful reef life. Things change rapidly, though, as you descend deeper into the ocean and the number of animals goes down drastically in favor of leviathans like humpback and sperm whales, as well as large sharks and squid. Even further into the game you encounter stuff that make those deep sea denizens look warm and cuddly by comparison.
Do not let the multitude of bright and happy screenshots you have seen so far fool you, there are parts of this game that are downright creepy and dark. If you have a fear of deep water where you can see nothing below you but endless blue depths, then this is not the game for you. I had moments sprinkled throughout the game where I truly just wanted to get through a particular spot as fast as possible to get to someplace more welcoming. To be fair there are not many of these, but they are there and they can give you goosebumps.
There are antagonists of a sort, but no real villain to speak of, and even things that may seem malicious at first may be more sympathetic than you first see. It is also, of course, possible that they are exactly as malicious as they first appear. This is largely where I drew my Miyazaki comparison from earlier: his movies don’t tend to have proper villains, just characters who have their own goals which may run counter to the protagonist’s own. They are not evil necessarily (and in many cases they are not evil at all), but their motives may not be pure or they may be doing bad things for good reasons.
As an example of that within Abzû, early in the experience you encounter a great white shark who savagely destroys one of the camera drones that occasionally follow you in your adventures. At first it is a cause of worry that a fight against one of nature’s apex predators in imminent, but after a while the shark is encountered a few more times and it becomes apparent he was just doing what sharks do and what else can you expect a shark to do? I named him “Bitey” and we had several adventures together.
In terms of gameplay there is not much to speak of. You can swim, you can swim slightly faster for short periods of time, and on occasion you can interact with your environment. That really is about it. Still, even with just that small list of things to do you will find that it is all you need to enjoy this game. If the game went on longer than its roughly two-hour length I would definitely want to see a wider range of actions, but for a game that is mostly about the simple experience of swimming and discovering it is enough.
In a sense it is actually refreshing to go from games which require dozens of button combinations to play properly to a game which could have been played on an NES controller. The game goes out of its way to make sure you never have to worry about failing, no matter how novice or experienced a gamer you are.
In a game that is light on gameplay the presentation is everything, and that is one of the areas that Abzû truly excels. The UI is as minimal as any you will ever find. When you begin the game it will tell you how to swim, and then how to use a temporary boost, and lastly how to interact with the occasional objects you find. After that it leaves you alone except to point out when there is an object nearby you can use and to give you the names of the animals around you when you are in meditation mode or using one as an impromptu vehicle.
The graphics in Abzû originally feel rather plain and simple, but it is not long before you can appreciate the quality and attention to detail. The developers of Abzû decided to forego highly detailed texturing in favor of focusing on the color palette of the game, and the decision pays off. Which is not to say that the animals and environments in Abzû are bland or poorly textured since the texture quality is actually quite high, it just sticks to broad themes rather than picture-perfect accuracy.
The animals are still easily identifiable compared to their real life counterparts, and you should have no trouble recognizing them the next time you go to the aquarium, but you would not mistake them for the real thing either. This is all in service to the game building its environment and allows it to place hundreds of fish on screen at a time with little consequence to frame rate or graphical fidelity. In my experience on the PlayStation 4 I only encountered the frame rate dropping below 30 on rare occasions, and even then only in short bursts. I have not played the PC version, but as with most PC games the only limits will be based on your particular hardware.
As I mentioned above it is the colors of the game that drive its artistic direction. You start in a vast tropical blue area which gives way to colorful reefs of pink, green and other bright colors. Slowly this turns into darker blues as you descend and then into murky greens as you encounter the deep sea caves. Lastly there’s a shift to a dark, foreboding red as the game nears its climax.
The use of color in this game is incredible, and provides so much atmosphere to the experience. I mentioned previously that there were parts that seriously creeped me out, and the colors had a large part to play in that. There was clearly a lot of thought put into the color palette, which is especially appreciated because they could have easily said “the ocean is blue” and stuck with that throughout.
Lastly comes the music, which is a light mix of Zen and meditation. It is nothing I would listen to while out driving my car, but it fits the experience of Abzû perfectly. Like the colors the music sets the mood of the game, which is mostly quiet and peaceful with sprinkled bits of ominous undertones where appropriate. This is the kind of thing you can leave on in the background while you tend to other things, or even use it to fall asleep to. The game even encourages this by offering twelve meditation spots (which can be jumped to immediately from the menu once you have found them) for you to use. In most games such a feature might be a fun extra, but in Abzû it is something I could genuinely see using repeatedly.
You cannot lose in Abzû by any conventional definition. Even when you are facing certain dangerous sections a failure to avoid an obstacle or trap results in a momentary pause as you recover from it. With the exception of Bitey, the great white shark, the wildlife you encounter in the game is never a threat to you, and nor you to them. In fact, they seem singularly uninterested in you except as a curious thing for them to occasionally examine as you intrude upon their daily lives. I have never played a game where the world around you seems so apathetic to your presence within it, and yet I see that as a plus rather than a hit against the game. They are fish, why should they care what you are doing?
Abzû is an experience from start to finish, and one that is fairly unique among games. Every person who plays it is going to come away with something slightly different, and I think most people will find at least something to enjoy about it. It may not be for everyone, however, as this is definitely meant to be a relaxed gameplay experience, even if it does have darker moments. Even if all you play are first person shooters and MOBAs it may be worth checking this game out to see how it fits.
At $20 the price point may seem a bit steep for a two-hour experience, but I suspect that you, like me, will find yourself drawn to return to the game. There are so many secrets to find in the depths of the ocean, and every discovery adds a new piece to the narrative puzzle. Even if you already have found all the secrets the game has to offer there is a simple joy in just swimming with these animals and observing them going about their lives in this underwater playground. My best recommendation is to dive into this game knowing as little as you can about it and just enjoy the experience from start to finish.