Developer: Giant Squid
Release Date: 8/2/2016
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The Good: Absolutely stunning visuals, beautiful soundtrack by Austin Wintory, on-rails cinematic segments are breathtaking, so much detail and a large variety of marine life
The Bad: Pacing is broken up and jarring, very short, story doesn’t start to unfold until the last 20 minutes, repetitive exploration areas
Surreal adventure games are the next generation of the adventure genre, and if they are done right, can be quite memorable and mesmerizing. Journey was one of the first of this kind of new adventure titles. With minimal UI, gameplay, controls, and story, you are swept through a linear journey of emotions, visual beauty, and auditorial bliss. Some of the people from Journey are back at it again with Abzu, an underwater cinematic adventure.
You play as a character that swims around the ocean exploring trying to stop some sort of mechanical infestation from destroying all ocean life. The story plays out similar to Journey in which you figure out what’s going contextually as you progress through the game via images and scenes. If you played Journey then you know what to expect with Abzu. What this game does differently is that it focuses more on an exploration of this beautiful world rather than pushing the player through a short journey and telling a quick story.
Right off the bat, you will notice how gorgeous this game is. Using the Unreal Engine 4, Abzu is bursting at the seams with color and saturated with detail. As you push through each large exploration area (there are about a dozen) your main purpose is to find hidden shells, activate various switches to open doors, and activate little pools that will add various new creatures to the game. While I mainly feel this was filler content to extend the game another hour, it forces you to explore the ocean floor and look around a bit. Seeing all sorts of marine life and plant matter float around you is just amazing. This game really makes you feel like you’re swimming in the ocean and exploring what’s under the sea.
The game’s pacing is similar to Journey with an explorative area, then a cinematic on-rails section that shows off the visuals which this game nails. Having your character leap out of the water to a stunning vista or romp around with whales in the murky depths is something not seen in any other game. Not a single area is the same and I never saw the same sea critter twice. It’s the small things that count in games like this, and the amount of detail packed in Abzu is triple that of Journey and I loved every second of it.
Now that’s not to say that exploring between these cinematic moments is the best thing for this type of game. I thought Journey’s pacing was spot on, but Abzu feels like a bumpy roller coaster with these cinematic scenes spread too far apart. There’s only so many switches, chains, and doorways I can go through before I want something else. When you give the player very little to do, you have to rely on the senses and visuals to keep the player entertained. I feel this could have been an underwater Journey if the pacing was a little better.
Overall, Abzu is a fantastic adventure game and any fan of Journey must own this. The visuals are absolutely stunning, and Austin Wintory is back with another beautiful soundtrack — one of the best this year. It’s just a shame that the game suffers from poor pacing and exploration elements that are just there to force the player to look at everything. I feel I’m getting my face rubbed in the beauty rather than being allowed to soak it in as it passes by me.