One of my biggest fears is being crushed by water pressure. It’s a weird one I know. Not necessarily drowning so much, though that is a fear also, but just being so deep that all your internal organs crumple under the weight. Just touching the bottom of a six foot swimming pool gives me jitters because I can start to feel the strain even then. Which is strange because I love swimming. So why on this planet, the one containing over 70% water commonly referred to as Earth, did I choose to review ABZÛ? To be honest, I’m not sure.
ABZÛ is the first game to come out of Giant Squid Studios, a new indie studio started by Matt Nava, art director on Flower and Journey. Hearing the name, Journey, should give you an indication of what ABZÛ will play and look like and this is certainly the case here, the only difference being ABZÛ is completely underwater.
You play as a diver who runs into some trouble whilst exploring the ocean. It isn’t abundantly clear why you are down there, but it is clear that you are tasked with restoring the ocean to its former glory. This can come across as a bit preachy at times, as to restore the ocean, the player is tasked with inserting what can only be described as a nucleus into a cell. This then causes the underwater plant life, and all manner of fish, to burst out of the coral growing from the cell. How this story is told though, without any words, or text, is a testament to the overall visual design that leads you on through the game.
The art style is bright and beautiful, and the game gives you plenty of opportunity to soak it all in using statues dotted around the large, open areas that you can sit on and ‘meditate’. Meditating involves the camera following many of the different species of fish around as they swim. A flick of the left thumbstick allows you to view different fish. These vignettes don’t contribute to the story, they more act like old-school screensavers, but each location is stunning and you can quite easily lose yourself in it.
As immersive as the game is however, each chapter is broken down and split up by one huge annoyance: long load times on loading screens that are far too boring. All the load screen consists of is a black screen with a tiny rotating triangle at the bottom. It’s such a stark contrast between the bright colours of the bottom of the ocean found in-game, and the bleak loading screen makes something so trivial stand out as a major misstep in design. It’s made worse by the length of some of the loading times, with all taking more than 30 seconds, but some as long as a minute. This isn’t a massive game by any means so the length in load times does seem odd.
In fact, the game is the opposite of massive; it’s very short. Even stopping short to admire all the impressive scenery around and hitch rides from giant squid and great whites, I was done within four hours. There are collectibles dotted throughout that you can go back and find once the main game has been completed. These range from easy to absurdly annoying to reach in terms of difficulty, but even then will only add a maximum of a couple of hours in order to mop up any you missed first time round.
There are two types of collectibles within the game: seashells that are just there to collect, and coral pools that once interacted with will release more fish into the surrounding area. Some of these can be small schools of fish, other times it can be killer whales or bigger. The bigger fish can be held onto and can help you speed through sections or breach the surface into a spectacular somersault. These moments help give a sense of freedom which is appreciated as the ocean floor can certainly be bleak at times, especially during later levels.
Swimming along the bottom of the ocean sounds like it could be tedious, but ABZÛ has clearly thought about this and provided a number of different areas for you to explore through its seven chapters. Sometimes you can be swimming through a bright underwater cove, before struggling to fit through much smaller gaps in walls, only for the ocean to open up and the bottom to be miles and miles beneath you. Other times, you will be swimming through man-made structures, sneaking past mines or worse so as not to draw attention to yourself. This variation really does keep the game fresh and has you constantly thinking “Where will I go next?” and leaves you guessing right until the very end.
In total, there are 12 achievements, but only one is story-related. It is possible to miss the other 11 but that is unlikely. They are awarded for breaching the surface on your own or with assistance, finding all manner of collectibles and hitching rides on some of the bigger creatures beneath the surface. But this is by no means a complicated list and should not provide much difficulty.
For those looking for the next Journey, ABZÛ may disappoint. It’s a very enjoyable game but is leagues below its predecessor. Pun intended. For all the niggling gripes listed above, there also appears to be something missing. It’s a game with a very strong message, beautiful vistas and a lot of heart, but the main character felt a bit lifeless. There were times when it got truly tense, but after realising the mechanic in those sections, any connection I had with the character disappeared.
It isn’t all negative though. I keep going back to the visuals because they really are stunning. There are times you see humongous beasts swimming in the distance, getting closer and closer and you feel a genuine rush when they are upon you, almost like meeting them in the real world. Sitting on a meditation spot can completely remove you from all your worries as you watch these virtual fishes swimming about. I would happily leave those playing in the background whilst I go off and do housework or work on my laptop, and it’s these moments that will stick with me from ABZÛ. And any game that has a moment in it that sticks with you must have been worthwhile in the first place.