Game review: mesmerising and artistic, Abzu finds endless depths under the waves

After the award-winning success of his earlier work Journey, developer Matt Nava has gone underwater for beautiful and contemplative game Abzu

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2016, 12:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2016, 12:03pm


Giant Squid

4.5 stars

The beauty of our world is without parallel, that almost goes without saying (although some of you basement dwellers I’m sure would disagree), but there’s no doubt that if any medium is ever to rival or replicate it in the future, it’ll be video games.

AR, VR – recreating “reality” might be the surface-level key word to entice the masses, but it’s more about enlarging our experiences, pushing boundaries to a point where it both resembles our real world, but also expands horizons.

It might be a while until that future is fully embraced, but Abzu will no doubt stand as a precursor to that stimulating potential. Available for the PC and PS4, on the surface the game is nothing more than an ocean diving simulator, a stress-free experience that has you swimming through magical, stunning underwater worlds populated with incredible deep-sea life. And for the most part, that’s about it – and if that were all there was to it, we’d still wholeheartedly recommend the game.

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But there’s an exploration element beyond it all, one that goes deeper than the fauna that circles or the simplistic puzzles presented: Abzu’s story floats over you, it sinks deeper and deeper as you begin to fully immerse yourself in its submerged environment, hinting at an ancient alien world revealed through fading hieroglyphs and ornate pictographs. What you think it all is, is far from the finality of it all, and the game shrewdly subverts any predictable notions that its initial portions might promise.

And more than its stunning visuals or soothing air, that’s what makes Abzu truly pioneering in a world filled with standard trappings and rotten clichés – an abstraction that is both cleverly ambiguous but constantly intriguing, acting in a way as a blueprint for the methods in which future developers should innovate.

Many critics are describing Abzu as “Journey, but underwater”, referring to Nava’s previous, award-winning creation. It’s a fair description, as both games share an art director and composer, as well as creating a tranquil atmosphere that stretches the limitations of traditional gaming. But it’s also a comment on how perplexing game criticism is becoming: the medium has changed dramatically for the better, and the standard terminology doesn’t apply any more. But if Abzu is the final result, as a game critic, I don’t feel challenged by it – in fact, I’m inspired.