Indie Game of the Week 05: Abzu

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There's no getting around how much Giant Squid's Abzu cribs from thatgamecompany's Journey, the former game's studio having been established by the latter game's art director. Both games have heroes that are ambiguously-defined pitch black figures, both have graphics that consists of a series of picturesque landscapes made out of low-polygon models and provided a tremendous sense of color and lighting to help them stand out, and both have an emotional orchestral score from Austin Wintory even. The nature of the games are the same too: the player is taking part in a linear story, with only a few environmental puzzles to create temporary roadblocks, and is directed in such a way to be a series of exhilarating highs and serene lows that accompany the music. In that sense, it almost feels like an extended sequence in Disney's Fantasia.

Like Refunct, I'm somewhat at a loss to go any further than that, because there's not a whole lot more to the game. You spend the game swimming around these locations, investigating the local fauna and occasionally finding collectibles and meditation statues. The latter allows you to "follow" any fish in the vicinity through a navigation system that doesn't necessarily track all that well, giving you the names of each type of fish as they go about their business in what essentially equates to an "aquarium" mode that helps to highlight the no doubt hours of research that went into how various types of fish and sea mammals swim around and interact with their natural habitat. The game's in no clear hurry to get to where it's going, and it assumes the same for its ichthyophile audience. The plot is fairly minimal and works on surprises more often than not, so I won't get too deep into it here, but the hero's quest is purposeful even if it occasionally feels like the protagonist is going along with the flow - literally, in the case of the game's many jetstream moments, which tend to invoke Journey's exciting sand-sliding complete with some up-tempo musical compositions.

Really, the only way to differentiate a lot of Abzu's aquatic environments are via their hues. This one's a lot pinker than the others.
Really, the only way to differentiate a lot of Abzu's aquatic environments are via their hues. This one's a lot pinker than the others.

"Journey but underwater" feels like a reductive way of describing Abzu, but I could easily imagine that those words were written on the design document before it got fleshed out. Abzu's strength lies in knowing how diving games excel: by never letting off the feeling of discovery and the enigmatic beauty of the deep. Through a combination of natural environments, ancient manmade temples and areas of a more sinister sci-fi "late-game Ecco the Dolphin" flavor, the game eventually starts breaking away from the rock pools and lagoons to less common underwater locales, and to what I feel is the game's credit its wordless plot works mostly on interpretation and subtext. Unfortunately, without that key anonymous multiplayer aspect Journey has, there's no longevity in Abzu's tale. No reason to begin the cycle anew without other people to accompany you. Not that every game needs that particular empathetic quirk of a feature, but it seems like an odd choice to adapt Journey's style wholesale for a new setting and except what is one of its most essential tenets.

Ultimately, I'm not sure where I stand with Abzu. I think its plot is memorable, I think its environments are gorgeous in their own low-poly way (the lighting and colors really help a lot, if I didn't make that clear), and I theoretically like any diving game worth its sea salt after falling in love with Arika's Everblue 2 a few years ago. It is, however, extremely light on content, extremely brief and extremely biting the steez of Journey. None of those should necessarily be taken as a negative, but I was definitely left wanting more out of the game.

It's worth paying attention to these murals. They don't quite explain everything, but they get you half of the way there.
It's worth paying attention to these murals. They don't quite explain everything, but they get you half of the way there.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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