UNDER THE SEA - ABZÛ Review

Few areas of our planet offer more scope for mystery and excitement than the watery domain we call the sea. According to a well regarded science man who works in the same building as me, we know more about the topography of other planets in our solar system than we do about the ocean right here on Earth. As vast and unforgiving as it may seem, it’s a home to incredible and beautiful array of wildlife, and the interactive experience afforded by videogames is a perfect medium for this captivating, inspiring work of nature. ABZÛ is one such experience.

Brought to you by Giant Squid Studios and led by Journey art director Matt Nava, ABZÛ is a wondrous tale from start to finish a little over two hours later. Steer your very own polygonal diver as you careen through stunning blue waters bursting with shoals of vibrant fish. First and foremost your task is exploration, as you are encouraged by the scenery to investigate each and every nook and cranny of the seabed, veering off to pursue the glimmer of an intriguing aquatic creature.

Titles like ABZÛ consistently force me to reassess the way in which I approach games for review, because there’s no traditional means to classify them. Some are obvious, the hauntingly beautiful orchestral score and jaw-dropping visuals to name just two, but it’s really software that promotes an experience - you’re essentially buying into an invoked emotional response, the same way we would have in Journey. And I’m perfectly okay with that.

Mechanics are kept ludicrously simple; diving is as simple as a depressed trigger and the A button causes your diver to swim more quickly. Take heed of the word ‘swim’ there, because it really does feel like it. Your character behaves as a body suspended in liquid, such that lightning fast turns on proverbial pennies are not only impossible, but discouraged entirely. There is a definite sense of momentum to consider as the diver swims in the direction they are facing rather than that of the camera, which feels slightly odd at first but it quickly becomes evident why this decision was made from a cinematographic perspective.

"I will take the liberty of discussing the art and sound elements
together, as it is in the combination of these two facets that the underwater world truly comes to life
"

Of which there are many - this is so exciting to play as someone with a background in life sciences. As a student of molecular biology myself with some understanding of the mechanisms employed by the plethora of undersea life featured in the game, I massively appreciate the science communication benefits provided by the title. I was devastated to learn very late in the game of the existence of meditation statues, which leave you a single button press away from flitting the camera between each species in your local area, with an overlaid Latin binomial. A fantastic touch, one that inspires recollection of the incredible collection of wildlife documentaries narrated by Sir David Attenborough, who is himself mentioned in ABZÛ’s credits sequence.

I will take the liberty of discussing the art and sound elements together, as it is in the combination of these two facets that the underwater world truly comes to life. Much like Journey, ABZÛ has a very distinct color palette, using just a few tones of many colours over unsophisticated objects. I found this title visually overwhelming much more frequently than its forebear, simply because of its much greater wildlife population. Clouds of fish swim past accompanied by soaring violins and sweeping harmonies in a gloriously majestic works by Austin Wintory, punctuated by singing harps and the equally singing London Voices Choir. Speaking purely from a melophile’s perspective, ABZÛ is a masterpiece.

All is swept into hushed silence however as you descend into the murky depths and your aquatic companions all but disappear. I won’t spoil anything for you here, but dark doings are afoot, and ABZÛ will have you constantly guessing as to exactly what is going on around you, and furthermore as to the true nature of good and evil. Extraordinarily little is spelled out for you (after two playthroughs I think I have a pretty good grasp, but not entirely sure yet), but the fact that I felt so compelled to try and work it out indicates that it’s been implemented correctly.

I cannot claim to know what exact vision the developers had in mind for me, and can only report on my own unique experience. I do, however, have a knack for research, and combing through job availabilities at Giant Squid Studios tells me that they prioritise one thing above all else: player feedback. From the flashes of light released when swimming through a shoal of fish to the tiny audial sparkles as a hidden collectible shell is found or a pool of new fish freed, it’s an incredibly rich experience in every sense of the word. The fact that the pitch and yaw of the camera can be freely adjusted should hint at the confidence the team has in the world they’ve created, allowing it to be viewed from any angle you wish.

I have one criticism of ABZÛ, just one, and it’s so paltry and meagre that I feel bad even mentioning it. Given that you’ll want to be swimming forward 99% of the time, I found that holding the trigger down for extended periods made my finger ache somewhat, and I would have chosen a thumb-operated button instead. That, ladies and gentlemen is my singular and worst issue, which should tell you that this game is something very special indeed.

With all that said, ABZÛ’s £14.99 retail price here in the UK ($19.99 elsewhere) for a two hour experience is hard to stomach, simply because of the cost:time ratio we are used to in this industry. When you consider the astonishing amount of work that must have gone into the piece, those misgivings melt away for me. Hell, I’d pay that just for a copy of the soundtrack, probably more. If you can find it on sale, fantastic, if not, trust me and take a punt on it. If you loved Journey, as I did, you can’t go wrong with ABZÛ and I have absolutely no qualms in naming it my favourite game of 2016. What a perfect way to end what has been a most turbulent year.