ABZÛ Review

August 7, 2016

At the heart of all art lies diversity. Stagnation of any creative medium, whether it be formulaic approach due to a lack of inventiveness, or worse, popularisation railroading at the hands of money grubbing financers, could be seen as the death-throws of any creativity. It’s a cry for help. Whether it be film, literature, stage, music, or video games (and everything else); the more doors we open as expression, the more likely we are to be surprised, challenged, and delighted by the unexpected. New experiences are the richest form of stimuli. And though other mediums have pushed through decades (or centuries) of creative teething, video games are arguably still in their adolescence. We’ve still so much more to see, hear, and experience.

Nevertheless, booming within the minds of modern interactive visionaries are the minimalist, arty immersive experiences. “Arty” is such a cop-out term, I know, but please excuse my limited vocabulary. These games emphasise a combination of modern technology in art and music, with a minimalism in concept and play, usually stripped of overbearing tutorials, an abundance of linear text and narrative, in favour of an interactive experience that speaks through player involvement and interpretation. Though there’s plenty to choose from and come in many forms, within the genre you might be most familiar with the works of That Game Company, notably Flower and Journey.

Today we’re going to get familiar with ABZÛ, a similar title by the relatively newly formed Giant Squid. Founded by Matt Nava, famed for his art direction on the aforementioned That Game Company projects, ABZÛ takes familiar components of the director’s previous work and transitions them from the winds and deserts to deep beneath the ocean surface. And while the team’s pedigree certain speaks volumes in ABZÛ‘s artistic direction, that familiarity unfortunately toes a balance between blessing and curse.

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The less said about ABZÛ‘s most poignant moments the more receptive you’ll likely be to its emotional notes, so I’ll do my best to keep specifics unspoiled. To keep it simple, and to mildly reiterate the above, ABZÛ emphasises minimalism in approach to play and progression. Controlling an unidentified and deliberately stylised diver, you’re tasked with immersing yourself in underwater landscapes rich with ocean life all the while finding a way to progress. And, as is the case for the genre, finding ways to simply enjoy the experience as it is. Naturally this means ABZÛ teases and tinkers with secrets and mechanics left to be experimented with and discovered by the player. Don’t be fooled into expecting a rich mechanical complexity; ABZÛ is indeed simple in play. But exploiting the basic game mechanisms reward, at the best of times, a warming and zen-like highlight within oceanic hotspots

An incredibly impressive effort has been put into the feel of legitimate ocean pressure and buoyancy, swimming convincingly replicating the density of and motion through water, both for the player’s avatar and the abundance of fish. Additionally, though the game aims for an aesthetically pleasing toon-like minimalism to the assets, the advantages of modern hardware and Unreal Engine 4 are put to good use through particle-like density of fish schools. It’s a seen-to-be-believed kind of thing, as certain under water vistas and sequences are rich with sea life unlike anything I’ve seen in an underwater game previously. Gigantic schools of fish move convincingly with the flow of the ocean, and to swim around and within these are ABZÛ‘s highlights. The sense of depth and presence of scene density seamlessly entwines with a gorgeous choral soundtrack, evoking a surreal, pleasant stillness to what is otherwise busyness.

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Unfortunately these highs, as strong as they might be, deteriorate under the formulaic approach at the core of ABZÛ. I feel almost mean saying it, but ABZÛ is missing that essential authentic originality in interactivity, even through simplicity, that helped elevate its faux-predecessors. Normally I’d try to avoid too many comparisons to other projects. After all, all art is reminiscent of works from others. It’s an evolving, learned medium. But where Flower and Journey combine simple interactivity with a spark of interactive brilliance (for example, Journey‘s online component), ABZÛ has…almost nothing. Impressive underwater control form aside, progressing between areas in ABZÛ boils down to rudimentary interactive hotspots and trinket hunting. Worse still, and I mean “worse” as in lesser but not inherently bad, some mid-level sequence borderline on rail design variety that for my tastes overstay their welcome.

And all of this is what I feel hinders ABZÛ as a complete vision. Too often it is overly reliant on the admittedly impressive visual and audio presentation at the cost of genuine brilliance and originality in play. Simplicity is fine, but ABZÛ grapples a tired and overly safe simplicity, like an amalgamation of concepts from Journey and Flower while struggling to authenticate its own surprises. As the credits rolled and the deliberately vague (and I don’t necessarily highlight that as a negative) narrative came to a close, I struggled to recall any truly poignant moments of brilliance and wonder that would linger with me beyond the adventure itself. Emotional resonance is subjective of course, but ABZÛ simply didn’t resonate with me beyond a welcoming yet familiar curiosity.

ABZÛ is by no means bad. It’s an admirable new studio first effort, one worth a dive for its technical, visual, and audio sensory pleasure that together succeed in offering a relaxing, zen-like experience. It’s warm, inviting, and inoffensive, but sadly several strokes away from the necessity to be something more in a genre that has rapidly become a norm. Fins crossed Giant Squid are able to elevate their creative vision the next time around, because even if ABZÛ doesn’t quite reach the depths of interactive emotional resonance I seek, the potential is definitely there.


Zen-like diving accomplishment of sensory and technological wonder.


Overly safe and formulaic, lacking a distinct, emotionally resonant spark.

Overall Score: