The first thing you’ll probably notice about ABZÛ is just how damn pretty it is. The way in which huge shoals of fish gather and disperse in a beautiful and realistic manner as the underwater fauna ignites into a radiant glow whenever the sunlight strikes through to the ocean floor is truly stunning. ABZÛ’s underwater world is simply bursting with life; instilling a genuine sense of wonderment at every turn. It’s undoubtedly an incredible thing to behold on an aesthetic, visual and audio level which is what makes it so hard for me to say that the game supporting those elements falls short of them.
The term “swimming simulator” has been getting thrown around a lot in regards to ABZÛ’s game mechanics, but really it’s about the simulation of swimming in as much as The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is about the art of walking. You do though swim or rather scuba dive using a pretty tight control scheme as you explore a linear set of environments filled with a few drones, a shark and a host of other weird and wonderful aquatic life. You can meditate which throws you into a weird fight with the otherwise functional camera as you attempt to lock onto the odd passing fish only to see it being gobbled up a few seconds later by something bigger. There are also some very light (I struggle to call them) “puzzle” segments and you can also ride a giant squid, so there’s that. It’s all executed to varying degrees of good but none of it really stands out as a reason to actually play the game rather than to just watch it.
So far I’ve struggled not to mention thatgamecompany’s Journey. Anyone who followed the development of ABZÛ will know that the developer Giant Squid was founded by thatgamecompany’s previous art director Matt Nava. It’s easy to compare ABZÛ to Journey unfavourably as Journey nailed so many of the things that ABZÛ struggles with. Even in its extremely short run time it still manages to feel repetitive. This isn’t helped by the fact that areas are chopped up into levels with a lengthy loading screen and a return to the hub world required between each. This proves to be of further detriment to the already stop/start pacing. Every time I became enamoured by and relaxed within the environments I would spot the portal that signalled the end of the mission. That isn’t to say that there aren’t moments that work, when the game truly takes off it can deliver genuinely breath-taking scenes on both a large and small scale.
Perhaps lofty expectations will hinder many players experience of ABZÛ as I imagine a lot of people are going into it expecting an emotional experience akin to Journey but I’m not at all convinced that they’ll get that out of it. I’m certain it all means something to the creators but I found the majority of the experience to be too emotionally distant to become invested in. There are signs of a story tucked away but those glimpses never managed to be tantalising enough for me to bother filling in the rest of the blanks. All of that being said, perhaps my issues with the pacing caused me to become too detached to get much from it on an emotional level in which case that is a shame.
As is the case with a lot of indie games the soundtrack is perhaps the highlight of the entire package. Once again, Austin Wintory delivers a fittingly serene score that absolutely enhances every moment in which it is heard. Whether racing through a slipstream with an army of fish by your side or laying still in the water taking in your surroundings the accompanying score manages to be everything from blissful to exciting.
I figure that I ought to have loved ABZÛ as on paper it’s delivering an experience that is right up my alley. Hopefully, I’ll play it again for the third time in a month or so with a fresh pair of eyes and enjoy it a whole lot more. Sadly I can’t imagine any length of time away from it will fix my issues with the irritating pacing or the lack of genuinely arresting gameplay. It’s still an absolute treat for the senses but it’s disheartening to me that it appears to be lacking depth in most other ways that count.