An Undersea Journey
I don’t enjoy directly comparing one game to another. Usually, I like to allow a game to stand on its own merit rather than forcing it to live up to some standard that another game set. In the case of Abzû, however, I can’t help but juxtapose it with a title that has touched critics and gamers alike: Journey. Yes, this game feels like a spiritual successor to the 2012 indie darling. In fact, developer Giant Squid’s studio head Matt Nava was the Art Director at thatgamecompany for both Flower and Journey. Not only that, but Abzû shares a composer with Journey: Mr. Austin Wintory. While playing Abzû, I kept making parallels to Journey: The premise is similar, the music is similar, the art direction is similar; Hell, our little scuba diver even makes little chirping noises with the press of a button. Thus lies my conundrum with this review: On one hand, I feel as though Abzû is almost a rip-off of Journey. On the other hand, “rip-off” is such a dirty word that carries certain connotations; Abzû is not “knock-off brand” Journey. It tells its own story that is both beautiful and moving, and thus deserves to be judged on its own merit.
Allow me to begin with something that I don’t have an inner struggle with: This game is drop-dead gorgeous. Sure, I said that the art-style was similar to Journey; that’s inherent, considering Matt Nava’s role in the project. Picasso painted different pictures on different canvases, and we obviously don’t have an issue with that. In short, I have no problem with the art being slightly derivative of Journey. I cannot express to you how many times I simply gawked at what was on my screen while playing Abzû. The game is a living, breathing painting; Beautiful fish and flora alike decorate each section of the game in their own unique styles. Stark and straight-lined mechanized sections provide a contrast to the flowy and carefree nature sections of the game. Abzû is certainly one of PS4’s greatest looking games; while it doesn’t push the PS4 to its max, its stunning landscapes and beautiful underwater vistas are definitely easy on the eyes.
I’ve said this a thousand times in this review already, but Abzû plays almost exactly like an underwater version of Journey. You begin somewhere in the middle of the ocean without much clue as to what you are supposed to do. Your only controls are ones that allow you to move and a small “chirp” button that interacts with the world around you. You begin exploring, trying new things, and generally taking in the world around you. Pretty soon, you notice remnants of an ancient civilization that you seem to be a part of. With the help of a friend, you investigate what happened to the civilization.
Like I said, Abzû is literally an underwater version of Journey.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing; Journey is one of the great games of the last generation, and perhaps one of the greatest games of all time, depending on who you talk to. It just feels extremely derivative- derivative to the point of distraction. There were multiple times where I thought to myself “Yep, that’s an exact ‘undersea’ clone of a moment in Journey“. It’s not that these moments weren’t effective in Abzû, it’s just that I have experienced many of them before. If history were somehow flipped and Abzû came out before Journey, I would be ranting and raving about how great Abzû is. There’s no doubt that I would praise the game for its moving story, beautiful style, and unique take on narrative in games. I’d be willing to bet that I would love Abzû probably just as much as I love Journey… but history isn’t flipped. Abzû came after Journey, and it’s too similar for me to ignore the comparisons.
To speak on what unique features Abzû delivers to the table, I absolutely must brag on the game’s swimming mechanic. We all know that underwater levels are the worst, whether it be in Mario, Zelda, Banjo-Kazooie or any other title in the medium. Abzû is essentially one big “water level”- and that’s a scary thought. Giant Squid, however, developed a cohesive and natural way to swim in the game. It’s essentially the controls of a third person airship with some modifications to fit the underwater setting. After finagling with the inverse axis options, controlling my little scuba dude felt great. I daresay that Giant Squid has created some of the best, if not the best swimming controls in gaming.
Furthermore, Abzû delivers in bringing surprising and impactful moments to their game. I felt moved multiple times; Not many games have that power over the player. While there were some aforementioned moments in the game that felt like a reskinned Journey, there were just as many if not more moments that Abzû can claim all to itself. I am keeping the story vague, as the best way to experience this game is as blind as possible. I can only say that Abzû does indeed have its own unique story with its own unique message, despite feeling derivative at points.
The score of Abzû is yet another element of the game that is reminiscent of Journey, but in this case I don’t care one bit. Journey’s soundtrack is one of gaming’s finest, and Abzû‘s soundtrack deserves to be in that upper echelon as well. I am an orchestral and symphonic nerd; I love listening to and composing music of that nature. Many people don’t notice, but music plays such an important role in games and movies- imagine Darth Vader walking in without the Imperial March playing. In Abzû, composer Austin Wintory delivers an amazingly poignant playlist that fits perfectly within the context of the world. Strings swell as the player comes upon a breathtaking vista, a playful clarinet jingles around as schools of fish dance around, low brass reinforce the enormity of the blue whale. This is certainly a soundtrack that I will listen to for years down the road- If you love game and movie music as much as I do, Abzû is almost worth your time on the music alone.
Upon reflection of my experience of Abzû, my opinion is that I need… well, more reflection. The merit of this game is going to be on how well it sits with me days, weeks, months later. Will I think about the more moving moments in this game? Will I remember just how beautiful Abzû‘s art direction is? Or will those feelings disappear and fade over time, as I might remember Journey more fondly? Only time will tell, but for now, I can assure you of two things:
1.) Abzû is a good, potentially great, if not derivative, game.
2.) If you loved Journey, play Abzû. If you hated Journey, don’t play Abzû. If you haven’t played Journey, then hop on that quickly.
Other than that, my overall feelings of this game aren’t quite settled. Perhaps I will give an update to this review in the future, or perhaps I will leave this website, start my own, and write a very similar review that has merit all its own.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PS4 (reviewed), PC; Publisher: 505 Games ; Developer: Giant Squid; Players: 1 ; Released: August 2, 2016 ; ESRB: E for Everyone ; MSRP: $19.99
This review is based off of a retail copy of Abzu purchased by Hey Poor Player.