A good time for a nice swim.
It feels weird to call Abzu a story-walker (jokes about being a swimming simulator notwithstanding) since other titles in this genre tend to give the player means of investigation and unraveling the story along the way, uncovering smaller elements that lead to a bigger picture - Abzu however gives the player freedom to explore in the various ‘levels’ while pacing out the reveal of plot points ala chapters, not to mention getting to peep at plenty of fish. A deep narrative to sit on well after won’t be found here, but I was interested in Abzu due to its mellow, relaxed experience that it advertised - And just so happens to deliver on.
Fast-paced arcade action this ain’t; Abzu is a chill, self-paced campaign through and through, and understandably that’s not going to be the most enticing thing for many. It’s the kind of game one launches when wanting something quiet and soft to coast through, but not want the insidious shadow of ‘artsy’ content being lodged down one's throat. Swimming around is easy to control with a few inputs dedicated to interacting with objects or nearby fish that can be held onto for, at times depending on the species, faster movement - And otherwise just being a cool feature to fool around with. The story (based somewhat on real mythology, if my brief research is correct) doesn’t get in the way save for directed cutscenes, so if your analyzing of painted imagery in ruins or the environment doesn’t tell you much about what’s going on, you aren’t missing out on much. While plenty of details can be ignored without harm, later events however will make it quite clear on what the player should be paying attention to - Effectively without dialogue. Most of the ‘talking’ is done by the soundtrack which, while admittedly not my music style of choice, is an orchestrated affair that is often big and sweeping for a few minutes to then allow the sound effects and ambiance to take over. While it feels redundant to explain this, the audio is naturally swim-y and muffled in a way that tickles positive points in my brain - I daresay headphones are required to get the most out of the sound design.
You don’t need me to point out how Abzu is a feast for the eyes if you’ve seen trailers and screenshots, but this won’t stop me from praising the look of it all the same. Abzu is a delight to gawk at thanks to the color and lighting usage, its style something of a warmly rendered cartoon that ebbs and flows with the current in a exceptionally pleasant way. Getting up close to skittish fish can be a challenge, but meditation statues can be sought out and sat upon allowing the player to toggle the camera around to follow the various types of fauna in the current area. While some fish look more cartoonishly rendered than others, watching various species float around in schools, hang out on the seafloor or just gliding about is downright soothing. Abzu as a whole is very meditative and calming, and I mean it as a compliment when I say that my eyelids at times felt quite heavy. There are some moments in the plot where that serenity is briefly shattered for the sake of major events, but thankfully it’s only for a few moments at a time. It’s a damn pretty game with screenshot potential abound.
I dislike dictating how a player should approach a game, but in Abzu’s case one needs to shift their expectations for something slow, easy and laid back. If you want to get the blood pumping, you’d play Doom - If you want to relax and soak in something quiet, you’d play Abzu. As effective as the game is at being calming, it’s difficult for me to give it a major recommendation since its value after completion takes a dive. Even with achievements to pop and collectibles to seek out, there isn’t much to do after your first playthrough, though there is a level select option should one want to return to a favored area to float around in. I’ve gotten my value out of the game after the credits ran during my approximately two hour playtime, so your mileage will depend on how often you want to go for a peaceful swim. If a narrative-driven yet self-paced experience is what you’re after, Abzu is a wonderful thing to spend an evening with - Especially before bedtime or when needing to calm down.