Hello everyone, and welcome to Late to the Party, a series in which I discuss video games that I’ve finally gotten around to playing. As much as I enjoy games, it’s rare for me to experience them right when they are first released. Normally it takes me anywhere from a few months to a few years to get around to playing to a game, and because of this I’ve got a considerable backlog of games that grows every year. From time to time I’m able to chip away at that backlog and whenever I do so I like to write about it in this series. Today I’m going to tell you about Abzû, an underwater exploration game. This writing piece will be spoiler free except for some very small details.

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I first played Abzû back at PSX 2015 and at the time I wasn’t overly captivated by it, though that was mainly because of the unusual circumstances surrounding my time with the game. When I came over to one of the Abzû kiosk on the show floor it was in the middle of the game’s demo (the last person there probably had started but not finished the demo) and even though I soon figured out the controls, for the life of me I couldn’t discern what the game’s objective was. It was pretty, yes, but after five minutes I walked away mystified as to what it was about. The next year I saw that Abzû was getting generally positive reviews so I decided to give it a second chance, and now in 2018 Abzû’s day has finally come.

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Abzû begins with a nameless diver floating on the surface of the water. The sky is calm and the sun is shining. With a touch of a button, however, you dive below the surface and enter the underwater world of Abzû. Light dances on groves of kelp. Ancient ruins lie peacefully on the sea floor. Creatures of every size and type dart through the water. While not the most graphically advanced game around, Abzû’s great art direction make for a mesmerizing experience. There’s an undeniable sense of awe as you explore this submerged realm, both due to its colorful visuals and its excellent orchestral score, and Abzû wants you to take it all in, going so far as to provide meditation statues where you can just sit and watch the wildlife. With no death, score, or time limit, you can take all the time you want to soak in the game’s world, and personally I’d say that Abzû is best played at a very relaxed pace. While you can potentially speedrun it in about an hour, because it’s such a chill game I’d say you’re doing it wrong if you play the game in a hurry.

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Entering the kelp forest

Now, if what I’m describing with Abzû sounds strangely familiar there’s a good reason for that. Abzû’s developer, Giant Squid Studios, is led by the former art director of Thatgamecompany, the studio behind games such as Journey. The influences of Journey, and to a lesser degree Flower, are quite apparent in Abzû, to the point where I’d completely understand if you thought the same team made both games. That’s not to say that both games look and play the same, but anyone who has played one game will almost have a sense of déjà vu upon playing the other.

Where Abzû unfortunately stumbles in its emulation of Journey is in the storytelling department. As with Journey, there is no dialogue and hardly any cutscenes in Abzû, leaving you to explore the world and figure out the story on your own, primarily via clues in the ruins of the lost civilization that you discover. The ruins themselves are well designed, with beautiful architecture that reminds me of the Moorish-style palaces I’ve seen in Spain, but you just don’t get enough solid details from them to get a complete picture of the game’s story. It’s never really clear who you are or why the world is the way it is. Consequently the ending lacks the power it could have had if I actually knew what was going on, but thankfully Abzû’s narrative deficiencies don’t detract from the wonder of exploring its underwater realm.

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Meditating on the wonders of the sea

Abzû may not possess quite the same level of magic as Journey and certainly doesn’t have Journey’s finesse when it comes to storytelling, but it’s still an enthralling game that’s hard to put down. Beautiful, simple, and relaxing, Abzû’s strengths come together to earn it something like an 8 out of 10. If you enjoyed Journey or similar exploration games, take the plunge and give Abzû a try.

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