ABZU: Undersea Journey
Journey was one of my favourite games of its release year, blending together many well-crafted elements into an enthralling experience. Long time fans of Thatgamecompany weren’t surprised at this though as the developer had a history of delivering atmospheric titles with brilliant sound tracks. For me though it was the multiplayer aspect that made Journey shine; the co-operation through minimal communication a truly inspired mechanic. However Thatgamecompany’s usual release cycle of every 3 years has come and gone without another release, leaving us wanting for the kind of experiences that they were known to deliver. In the mean time however former art director for Thatgamecompany Matt Nava has formed a new games development house called Giant Squid Studios and their first game, ABZU, has just been released.
It’s easy to see Matt Nava’s influence in ABZU, the main character sharing similar stylings to the main protagonist of Journey. Indeed the setting, whilst being the polar opposite of Journey’s desert, shares a lot of the same elements. After a short cut scene, which obviously holds some significance to ABZU’s plot, you’re dumped in a massive underwater world and set forth to explore. The how and why of everything are left up to you to figure out as there’s no dialogue nor walls of texts to explain anything. The only helping hand you’ll get is a few screens that fade in to let you know what the controls are, after that you’re on your own.
Borrowing yet again from it’s spiritual predecessor ABZU has the same highly-stylised, almost cel-shaded like aesthetic. Unlike the barren wastes of Journey ABZU is a world that teams with life, schools of fish and other sea creatures dancing about as you explore. These visuals are then accompanied by an incredible sound track done by Austin Wintory, the same composer behind Journey. I’ll endeavour to stop making comparisons between the two but calling it “Journey but in the sea” seems like the most apt description of what ABZU is on first glance.
ABZU is an exploration game, one that makes full use of the underwater environment to provide you with much more freedom than traditional platformers do. You’ll be dropped into a gated off area, one that you must explore in order to find your way out. Along the way you’ll find various collectibles, unlocks and various items that are used to unblock/unlock your way through to the next section. There’s no combat to speak of however, the game preferring to gently remind you that there’s a better way than throwing yourself head on at every problem. Overall it’s a very simple game but as we’ve seen before simplicity in game mechanics doesn’t mean it isn’t a sophisticated experience.
The exploration is done mostly well, the environments being full of detail that’s worthy of exploration just by itself. Unlocking additional creatures from their underwater prisons adds them directly to the local ecosystem, sometimes changing it radically. You move at a good speed, especially with boost, making it easy to get across a map in no time at all. What’s lacking however is an indication of how complete each section is, leaving you to wonder if you really did get everything or there was something left behind. I may have just missed the signal that showed you that but I remember Journey’s version of that being very obvious and if ABZU has a similar mechanic it was far too subtle for me to pick up on.
I did as instructed when the game asked me to use a controller however even then the controls felt a little janky. I do understand that there’s a certain amount of inertia when you’re in water however the way the character moves sometimes doesn’t quite line up with what your inputs are. It’s not unusable by any stretch of the imagination but it does make some moments far more frustrating than they need to be. I didn’t swap it out for the mouse and keyboard however, so I’m not sure if that might have resolved my issues.
The story is told through your interactions in the world, various hieroglyphics that adorn parts of the world and lots of cut scenes that paint a high level picture of what your character is trying to accomplish. Consequently there’s not a lot of meaning you can derive from ABZU directly, it’s all inferred from what you see on screen. This doesn’t prevent the game from having some truly impressive emotional moments however, many of which are reminiscent of Journey, but it does mean that the higher meaning of the game is somewhat elusive.
ABZU is a true spiritual successor to Journey, taking all of what made its predecessor great and applying it to a whole new setting. The visual and sound design both come from direct from those who worked on Journey and their influence can be seen throughout ABZU. Mechanically it plays largely the same with the added freedom granted by being underwater used to great effect. The controls are probably the one black mark against the otherwise solid experience, making some aspects of the game just a bit tedious and awkward. Overall though ABZU is a standout debut title for Giant Squid Studios and I very much look forward to what they do next.
That is if Thatgamecompany don’t release something before them, of course!
ABZU is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.