When I’m not playing video games or writing pithy blog posts about them on my laptop, one of my favorite activities is scuba diving, the hobby that most aspiring astronauts should take up as a realistic plan B. Unfortunately, given that the water where I live is cold, murky, and irradiated, it’s only once in a blue moon that I’m able to go diving somewhere pleasant. Developer Giant Squid knows my plight, and has in turn given us ABZU, a game that promises all the fun of diving without necessitating that you get wet or leave your couch. Add to the unique concept the creative minds behind PlayStation classics FLOWER and JOURNEY, and you’ve got quite the promise in ABZU.
ABZU’s connection to JOURNEY is readily apparent from the moment you start a new game. As a diver floating unconscious in the middle of the ocean, you receive a vision to reach a glowing beacon at the bottom of the sea. Without a single line of dialogue, you’re prompted to discover just what exactly the source of your compulsion is. Along the way, you’ll learn more about where you came from as you swim through the submerged ruins of a long lost civilization.
Replace the H2O with sand and ABZU is essentially JOURNEY at sea. Flying carpets become fish and other aquatic life that you can ride, collectible runes are now conches, and key item banners have turned into adorable propeller drones that’ll remove obstructions for you. ABZU is similarly a breeze to beat, featuring only the barest puzzle elements and clocking in at just short of three hours. The only real difference is that while JOURNEY had very fascinating multiplayer applications, ABZU is an entirely single-player experience. While you still run into buddies throughout your adventure, they are relegated to NPCs that you have partial control over.
Just as JOURNEY was visually striking, ABZU is easily one of the most gorgeous games of this generation. ABZU’s color palette is far more diverse than that of its predecessor, and while blue is still the most prominent, the symphony of hues that come with the flora and fauna of the deep is very easy on the eyes. What makes the spectacle so breathtaking, however, is how these visuals act in harmony. ABZU features environments where hundreds of fish, sharks, porpoises, and all other kinds of ocean life are swimming about, and regardless of whether they’re in a kelp forest, an ocean floor graveyard, or anywhere in between, they do so with nary a hint of slowdown in the frame rate. ABZU simply has more moving parts than pretty much any game out there, and it handles them without a single hiccup.
Sometimes you can have your fish and eat them too
It would be nice to call ABZU a prettier JOURNEY and leave it at that, but I couldn’t make that claim in good faith. ABZU is, sadly, all style and no substance. The plot, which is really more akin to a theme than a narrative, is a threadbare ode to “the folly of man” or some nonsense. While this tale is more emotional than rational, it still lacks any real catharsis, and the ending doesn’t leave the player with any satisfaction. And even though the game is about as long as a movie, the lack of depth (ironic) results in its overstaying its welcome by the end.
What really cuts into ABZU’s replay value is the lack of an online component. Sure, it’s short. Sure, there’s unlockables to go back for. There is, however, nothing to differentiate one playthrough from another; a ride this brief only needs to be taken once. JOURNEY was an unforgettable experience because of the way your buddies would drift in and out of your adventure. Each journey was unique because of the way your anonymous partners would interact with you, be they distant strangers or helpful guides that you’d chirp at continuously. ABZU features a similar musical communication prompt, but with no one to talk to, it feels like an empty gesture.
Disregard that last caption. Fish are friends, not food. That’s what seaweed is for
ABZU is almost a perfect clone of JOURNEY, but lacks a soul to call its own. Just about every aspect of that PS3 masterpiece is copied here, save for the ones that made it stand out. ABZU had an ocean of potential to draw from, but ends up feeling like a shallow puddle. Save yourself the money and flush this one down the toilet.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Reviewed on PlayStation 4, also available on PC