Abzu Hands-on: An Aquatic Journey and That’s Just Fine
Developer Giant Squid brought the near finished version of Abzu to E3, and it offered one of the more memorable gameplay experiences I had at the show. The game is a gem to look at it, art in motion if you will, so it’s hard to not just stare at its underwater world filled with life and vibrant colors while playing it. It truly is a very artistically pleasing game to take in, but while the art style may be what initially captures your senses, it’s the game’s similarities to Journey that will capture your heart and mind thanks to the sense of wonder and exploratory nature its underwater world provides.
Abzu’s Journey-like world shouldn’t surprise anyone thanks to the fact that its development team consists of a few members who created the whimsical Sony platform exclusive title a few years back. Like Journey, Abzu features a muted lead character that you must navigate through the game’s dreamy underwater setting with minimal insight into why the protagonist is exploring the deep, as well as what your overall objective is. This leads to the game’s natural sense of wonder and exploration as you float and dive your way through its intoxicating environments that look like an animated version of one of Jaques Cousteu’s underwater adventures. It feels like being in a dream thanks to the muted sounds of being underwater and the feeling of weightlessness from being fully submerged in some good old H2O.
In terms of gameplay the E3 demo provided a glimpse into what the main game will offer, which is a mix of random exploration, wonderment at its landscapes, puzzles, and the occasional run in with a great white shark, who appears to be the game’s ominous villain. I really appreciated the presentation, which lacks any sort of HUD or in-game display to clutter it up. This allows you to fully immerse yourself in the Abzu experience of exploration and figuring out how you fit in its underwater universe. Activities like swimming with large schools of exotic looking fishes, or catching a ride on a sea turtle or a giant sea bass will distract you from your objectives, which is fine because just soaking in Abzu’s world is an experience on its own, so it’s not like you need to be constantly “gaming” your way through it to enjoy its artistic offerings.
Like Journey, this game appears to be going after the hearts and minds of gamers thanks to the planetary bond humanity shares with the denizens of the deep oceans. While playing I came across what appeared to be some sort of automated underwater robot mini-sub, which for all intents and purposes became my companion on my journey. Even though it was clearly a machine, the way it was designed and how it fits in the world of Abzu made it feel like a living being. The sub essentially became my underwater Dogmeat, so thanks to Abzu’s focus on minimalism and wonder, it made me feel for a random sub as if it were a living breathing creature.
In fact, I became so attached to the little guy that I felt loss and pain in my heart when it got eaten by a great white striking from the shadows. This metallic stranger kept me company on my solitary journey and became a friend in just mere minutes after meeting him. In the end he sacrificed himself for me and my fleshy body, which the great white would have much preferred to dine on than metal and circuitry, so I found it to be an amazing use of narrative and game design to convince a rather emotionless soul to look at a mini-sub as if it were a longtime friend or family member.
I anticipate even more emotional encounters like this once Abzu launches this August for the PS4 and PC platforms. The game’s Journey influences are strong thanks to its development team, and that’s quite fine with me. Journey is clearly a special game and set the standard for vividly artistic and emotionally heavy titles thanks to its minimal use of traditional gaming tropes, but Abzu is looking like it will live up to the Journey comparisons, and should provide more than a few memorable experiences of its own. It looks like living art, and in just 15-minutes of playing it I became an instant fan and wanted to see how its narrative will fully play out. If you want more action than exploration in your gaming hobby then Abzu probably isn’t for you, but if you’re looking for a more artistic approach to gaming, you definitely should check this title out on August 2, 2016.
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