ABZÛ is a unique game from Giant Squid and 505 Games that takes place almost entirely underwater. As a diver, players will explore the colorful ocean depths, encounters dozens of realistic and colorful fish, and unravel the deep mysteries of the ocean. It's easily one of the loveliest games on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.
Bring your fins
ABZÛ originally launched on PlayStation 4 and Steam, and recently arrived on Xbox One at long last. It's the first videogame from Giant Squid, an indie studio founded by Matt Nava, art director of Journey and Flower. Given that Austin Wintory composed the soundtracks of both Journey and this game, it's fair to think of ABZÛ as a spiritual successor to that title. But one needn't have played Matt Nava's previous games to enjoy this one (I haven't).
As the game begins, our nameless character (who we'll call the Diver) awakens on the surface of an ocean. Controlling her underwater movements is simple. One button moves the diver forward, one kicks her legs for a burst of speed, and another interacts with objects in the environment. A fourth button grabs onto any large sea creature, allowing our heroine to hitch a ride.
Steer in any direction with the left stick; turn the camera with the right stick. The controls are inverted by default, which is appropriate for games with 360-degree movement. But if the inversion gives you trouble, it can be disabled individually for both movement and the camera at any time from the pause menu.
Mysteries of the deep
Before long, the Diver will enter a large area teaming with sea life. The way forward, a hole in a rock formation, is blocked by a wall of vegetation. To get through it, she'll need to enlist the help of some drones buried in the nearby sand. These little guys provide a bit of company on the solitary journey, lighting the path and occasionally removing obstacles for our heroine. Their origin is initially unknown, but might become clear as the adventure progresses.
After clearing the path, Diver will swim through a series of caves, eventually reaching another open area to explore. The basic flow of the game involves traveling to new undersea habits, each filled with unique sea creatures, solving a few puzzles, and then moving on to the next area. The puzzles never get more complex than finding a machine to interact with and/or a way to open a new path.
Things get much faster-paced whenever the protagonist encounters a jet stream. These underwater currents propel her along quickly through ruins, caverns, and other interesting environments. The diver can interact with schools of fish as she darts through the currents, contributing to an Achievement rather than serving any real purpose. But ABZÛ is all about taking in the sights and sea life, so the jet streams still provide a welcome thrill.
Dangers down below
The Diver soon encounters a great white shark who destroys one of her drones before swimming away. This massive beast is one of the few characters she'll meet throughout the game. The story is conveyed wordlessly via in-game cinematics, with underwater murals providing further cryptic clues to our heroine's origins and the history of this aquatic world. Despite this lack of dialog, you'll be hard-pressed not to feel both wonder and sadness as the game continues.
Although the shark itself never provides a real threat to the player, danger eventually emerges in the form of pyramid-shaped mines floating in the water. The mystery of who put them there becomes (at least partially) apparent as you go on. Touching one of these will stun the diver, but never kill her. You can't die or fail in ABZÛ, so don't come looking for a challenge.
ABZÛ is composed of seven chapters, each of which (along with the interactive end credits sequence) can be replayed after beating the game. The overall goal in many of these chapters is to return life to areas that have gone dead. This involves entering portals based on the mythological concept of the Abzu, a primeval sea located between worlds. After visiting the void realm, plant and animal life will spring forth in a glorious burst of color.
How and why she's able to do this will be puzzling at first, becoming clearer near the end of the game. ABZÛ's story is deliberately ambiguous, with some important facts left to the player's imagination. But there is certainly some payoff near the end, as our heroine discovers prehistoric species and amazing new environments. If you're still confused about what happens after the credits roll, check out Crave's breakdown of the plot.
Pools, meditation spots, and seashells
Throughout the game, the Diver will find three types of collectibles. Seashells are simply that, collectible items hidden out of the way. Hidden pools are more interesting. Interacting with one causes it to light up, releasing a new type of fish or creature into the ocean.
The meditation spots are sharkman-shaped statues upon which the Diver sits and contemplates. There you can simply watch the schools of fish peacefully swim by, or switch the focus to individual creatures and groups of fish swimming through the area. The game displays the name of the fish you focus on, as it also does when riding on a larger one.
Developer Giant Squid put obvious effort into realistically modeling the appearance and behavior of dozens of species of fish, so watching them can be quite fun on its own. You can even hop directly to any individual meditation spot after beating the game.
The Xbox One version of ABZÛ features a scant 12 Achievements worth a total of 1,000 Gamerscore. Several involve simple actions like performing a flip while riding a creature and witnessing a fish eat another fish while meditating, which can basically be done anywhere. A few can only be performed during very specific circumstances, such as riding a giant squid and riding a whale while it breaches the surface of the water. Nothing too complex.
The three hardest Achievements involve finding all of the collectibles. There are over 50 in total, some seriously tucked out of the way. You'll most likely need to follow a video guide to collect 'em all. I highly recommend playing through the game once on your own first, just to fully take in the beauty and story without the pressure of following the guide. If you prefer to jump straight in with a guide, the whole process should take about three hours.
It's better down where it's wetter
ABZÛ is a short but utterly engaging experience. Not only does it let players discover an undersea world, it does so with impeccable artistry. There's just so much undersea animal and plant life, all of it colorful and exciting. Remember how beautiful the pot dealer in American Beauty) thought plastic bags were? That's the level of beauty that ABZÛ actually achieves!
This game won't be for everybody. Some players require more action and challenge than ABZÛ aims to deliver. The overall experience is quite short, albeit highly replayable. There are very few games like ABZÛ out there, and none of them on Xbox One. Grab this one for its artistic beauty and a unique, captivating diving experience.
- Some of the best use of color in a videogame
- Undersea creatures each look and move realistically
- Story and environments guaranteed to stimulate the imagination
- One playthrough only lasts about two hours.
- Movement is slow and awkward during brief on-land segments.
Xbox One review copy provided by publisher 505 Games.
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