Unique and visually striking, Abzu doesn't quite make the most of its underwater setting but remains a highly compelling adventure.
ABZŰ (to give it its stylised title, and spare a thought for the poor SEO team on this one) is a slow, thoughtful indie adventure - but you probably clocked then when you saw the circumflex over the U. I know, I know, when it comes to indie games you always rock up for the diacritics, but with Abzu you'll stay because this deep sea adventure grabs you with the immediate intrigue of peeling back the inevitable mystery of rejuvenating these waters.
Under the guise of an unnamed diver you take to unknown territory, and to go into much more detail would verge into spoiler territory - suffice to say, the underwater edifices, statues and hieroglyphics tell most of the tale. Still, much of Abzu is what you make of it, not least because the narrative leaves plenty of room for personal interpretation, and while it initially presents itself as a journey of open waters you find yourself swimming along a prescribed route.
This is mostly evident as you play, with each level following a similar structure, tugging you to what is, essentially, another big door. This is a mechanically simple game, but a pleasurable one - all you can really need to do is swim, swirling and lapping around in wide circles, charging ahead with each kick of your flippers and occasionally interacting with the world with chimes of your sonar. I generally spent about five minutes each level just practicing my loops, so there's definitely time to muck about within its sombre presentation, though Abzu's camera tends to fight you a bit, and your character generally struggles with precise movements. This is no real bother, mind, as it all sits nicely with that lingering feeling of being the outsider in somebody else's world.
Early sequences feel a bit disparate and disconnected, as you shoot through jet-streams and tunnels, going up, down and up again, occasionally recreating the money shot from Free Willy as you near the surface, and you navigate these levels as if you're viewing a procession of paintings - Abzu feels more like an aquatic art gallery in its opening scenes, trading away some central cohesion to run away with its aesthetics.
A brief interjection: Abzu looks amazing, taking the time to paint and craft its marine biomes with the impeccable precision of a Victorian garden. Each area is a spectacle of colour, and whereas most games of this ilk tend to achieve their luscious style by crafting precise, detailed landscapes, Abzu does it by having you swim with the fishes - this is a marine biologist's wet dream, teeming with hundreds upon hundreds of colourful creatures, the bigger ones gobbling up the smaller, each going about its day-to-day life. Just watching all this swoosh in motion around swaying flora makes for quite a sight and, if nothing else, poor Call of Duty: Ghosts' fish AI just got absolutely schooled.
Despite the abundance of wildlife this is also quite a lonely game, further driving home that the player is the outsider in these lands. Abzu's few moments of actual interaction tend to feel more intimate because of it, with greater sentiment attached to encountering another set of eyes or the occasional mechanical chirps from your helper droids. Almost everything in Abzu is perfectly content just to leave you alone, though you can grab onto larger sea life - I couldn't resist the manta rays - and relaxingly float along as their passenger.
Anyway, Abzu comes together. About two-thirds of the way through the game's seven chapters I had my own personal eureka moment, parked the game into meditate mode - where the game throws the camera behind a fish and just, well, lets you watch them swim about - and started poring through Wikipedia for answers. This is where the adventure hits its stride, and I sped through its denouement with a smile on my face, excitedly propelled by the clear skill of all this craftsmanship and the swooping, thumping music.
There's room to treat the ocean as your playground, but this is a game mostly indebted to cinema, art and the previous work of thatgamecompany - the latter not being a huge surprise considering the involvement of Matt Nava and Austin Wintory, both contributors to Journey, with Jenova Chen picking up a special mention in the credits. Wintory's orchestral score deserves a particularly special mention, and while it's obviously highly subjective, I would argue this is his best soundtrack to date, the sumptuous arching orchestra precisely ordaining the game's mood.
Yet, and here's the rub, for much of this journey I found it hard to feel the sense of awe Abzu so desperately wants to instil in its players. I admire the hell out of it, sure, with those luscious and beautifully crafted ocean depths, and I really can't emphasise enough just how enraptured I was by the presentation - but for all its obvious skill and craft the overall experience felt a little muffled, its dramatic conclusion rushed and its attempt to pull the heartstrings a little too calculated. Abzu is an expertly authored game absolutely teeming with life; I just can't help but feel it lacks a little soul.
Yet Abzu is still an easy game to recommend, mainly because of the obvious skill at play here in crafting this unique and striking world. Even if you can't get comfortable in the sea, there's still some treasure to be found underwater.