You can put ABZÛ into a genre category, but it’s really its own entity. Creative Director Matt Nava made sure of that. Rather than a scuba simulator cluttered with gauges, ABZÛ is stripped of all real-world necessities so players can be immediately immersed in the fantasy. After all, the game is about the dream of scuba diving, and this shines through all aspects – the sea life, the ancient relics, everything.
Inspiration for the story was taken from the Enûma Eliš tablet, better known as the Babylonian creation mythos. One of the primeval gods from the epic is Apsu (or Abzu) who represents fresh water. In the Enûma Elish creation story, he was a primal being made of fresh water and a lover to another primal deity, Tiamat, who was a creature of salt water. Abzu is also the name for the primeval sea below the void space of the underworld. Various bodies of water are thought to draw their water from the Abzu, so many Babylonian temple courtyards contained tanks of holy water for religious washing. For me, the baptismal bowls and pools of Catholicism comes to mind, only the Enûma Eliš dates to several hundred years BCE; it’s a more modern comparison to draw.
I didn’t know this creation story prior to playing ABZÛ, but it is referenced in the credits. So, of course, I got curious. Knowing the historical context of the name Abzu puts several elements of the story into a clearer perspective and confirms my feeling throughout the game that it was a creation story. Told in combination with hieroglyphics and contrasting futuristic technology, and set between realistic ocean environments and enchanted underwater cities that put Atlantis to shame, the developers masterfully captured the otherworldly nature of the creation story.
ABZÛ is heavy on the symbolism, but the in-game action supplements the hieroglyphics and other visual storytelling aids seamlessly; it’s like you are reliving the creation story. The hieroglyphics clue you in to not only a civilization, but also a people who look exactly like your character. There are many references to a great white shark in the temples, as well as to large, inverted mechanical triangles that try to slow your progression later in the game – the great battle of good versus evil.
The shark seems to be your Tiamat (though more of a companion than a lover), and the triangles are the enemies who want to destroy this world the two of you have created. Your main goal is to release a few large creatures into the ecosystem, which then allows you to bring life to several darkened areas throughout the game. This Genesis-like tale has you “battling” the triangles at the end, with the shark at your side, to restore life and beauty to the ocean. The great thing about the narrative is that it’s open to interpretation, so while the story of Abzu may be inspired by an ancient creation story, Giant Squid has created their own mythos.
As covered in our hands-on preview from E3, ABZÛ boasts complete ecosystems with over 200 species of fish. You’ll encounter plenty of larger mammals, too, such as humpback whales, blue whales, dolphins – you name it. They also have created their own ecosystems in their mythical, underwater cities. You’ll see Galapagos penguins swimming alongside large species of eels and a variety of sharks – things that don’t belong together in the same habitat in the real world, but by putting them together in ABZÛ, adds to the fantasy of it all.
Getting from one place to another in the game is straight-forward. You can swim on your own, hitch a ride on a fish, or get swept away by one of the many underwater currents. You’ll need to find little black and yellow drones to unlock certain areas in the game, as well, but I want to put emphasis on the underwater currents.
This is where ABZÛ really shines – the cinematography, the graphics, the music, all of it. One of the most amazing moments is coming around a bend or emerging through a tunnel into a large open area with buildings and more sea life as far as the eye can see. The music swells to an apex, climbing from a happy urgency to a grand revelation. These eye-opening moments are spectacular on their own, but the music makes you feel like you are living them. Composer Austin Wintory really made the most of these moments with an incredible score.
The steam page strongly recommends that you play ABZÛ with a controller, whether you play on PS4 or PC. Having previewed the game on console at E3 (and despite my preference for a keyboard and mouse), the controls are much more fluid with a controller. It’s less cumbersome to maneuver your character with a thumbstick than with the WASD keys. There is no keybinding tutorial for PC players, only PS4, so you’ll have to guess what keys do what. This isn’t difficult, however, I was unable to figure out which key is the equivalent to the touch pad on the controller so I could enter meditation mode without having to enter the menu, nor could I figure out what key would allow me to use the sea creatures as my personal taxi drivers. It did not take away from the overall experience for me, but rather told me that I should get a controller.
ABZÛ is on the short side, with my first play-through taking a little over an hour, but that time can easily be stretched out by increasing the amount of time you spend exploring the environment. The details, large and small, are something to be appreciated in this game. For example, the color palate is amazing. Primary and secondary colors set the overall shade for different areas, with the sea life adding a variety of colors that compliment well. Watching larger fish eat the smaller ones has a simple joy to it, and plopping my cat in front of my screen while in meditation mode proved to be interesting.
ABZÛ definitely puts most of its stock into graphics and the music, but makes the abstract story work to its advantage. This is especially important if you are the kind of gamer that looks for a strong narrative, as the traditional plots points are nearly all absent. The game throws you into the deep and tells you to swim, but that is what adventure feels like – excitement of exploring the unknown.
ABZÛ was reviewed on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer.
Developer: Giant Squid | Publisher: 505 Games | Genre: Action, Adventure, Casual, Indie, Simulation | Platform: PC, PS4 | PEGI/ESRB: 7/E | Release Date: August 2, 2016