Developer: Giant Squid Studios
Release Date: November 29, 2018
Reviewed On: Switch
Publisher: 505 Games
As a kid that grew up exploring Puerto Rico’s beautiful beaches and Maryland’s extraordinary Chesapeake Bay, I was fascinated yet terrified by the vast, deep, and mysterious waters that were around me. I couldn’t help but wonder things like: “what would it be like to go underwater and swim around?”, “can I REALLY find and meet SpongeBob Squarepants?”, and of course, what basically every kid has in mind when they’re near an ocean or just a big body of water, “is a shark or something going to eat me?”
Despite my fear of the unknown, there was always a part of me that wanted to take part in an epic underwater adventure, but given that I lacked scuba diving equipment, along with the bravery to overcome my fears, I didn’t feel like I could make the journey happen. Thankfully, I was able to do so thanks to taking a plunge into Giant Squid Studio’s ABZÛ for the first time on PS4 — which was an unforgettable, wondrous, and captivating experience. Two years later, I’ve dived back into ABZÛ once more — this time on the Nintendo Switch, and I’m happy to say that it’s just as magnificent as it was before.
ABZÛ has you take on the role of a lone, nameless diver who happens to fall into the middle of a vast, deep blue ocean with hardly any instructions at all — except for brief control prompts on how to swim and interact with objects and deep sea creatures. At first, it seems like there’s no story at all in ABZÛ, however, as you swim and explore areas at your own pace, you’ll end up finding out that there’s more to it than meets the eye. There is no spoken dialogue, no narration, and no lines of text to read here — only cryptic visuals and other environmental cues to discover.
You have the option to dive more into ABZÛ mysterious narrative to decipher the true nature of the massive underwater world around you or choose to keep on swimming about with no worries at all. Having this level of freedom is one of the key contributors that make ABZÛ such a cathartic, calming, and moving work of art. It’s all about exploring — not going from point A to point B.
ABZÛ can be a quick, linear journey given that it takes just about 2-3 hours to finish it completely, but it’s a game that shouldn’t be frowned upon for its length but should instead be valued for what it has and what it is. In your underwater adventure, you can learn about and interact with sea creatures (like holding onto a manta ray!), explore the ocean’s depths to your heart’s delight, solve some light puzzles here and there, or even just take in the gorgeous and bright world that surrounds you. Since I’ve lately been on the move and constantly been in a “what’s next?” mindset, ABZÛ’s open and leisurely gameplay was such a pleasant change of pace for me.
The journey in ABZÛ isn’t just remarkable due to its open-ended style. Its world is utterly phenomenal because of how fascinating it looks, feels, and sounds. With colorful and epic seascapes that burst with aquatic life like swarming groups of fish, effortless and smooth controls and pleasant sounds like the singing sound that whales make, ABZÛ captures the immense beauty of the ocean. All areas in ABZÛ highlight the game’s magnificent art direction, attention to detail, and an impressive sense of scale.
What I find to be the most impressive component of ABZÛ, however, is its mesmerizing orchestral soundtrack from the composer, Austin Wintory, and how it wonderfully complements the game’s world. The music flows so well and perfectly matches every single moment you experience — whether it’s gentle, ambient compositions that play when you’re simply swimming about, — or a quick, more intense and tempo rising track that occurs when a menacing shark is shown. The music transitions are artfully done as they dynamically help develop mood that matches your surroundings, and the music isn’t distracting at all. If you enjoy listening to video game soundtracks as I do, then ABZÛ’s definitely deserves to be in your video game soundtrack playlist.
Like ABZÛ’s soundtrack, its controls don’t damper your underwater adventure experience. Swimming, diving, and doing other actions is simple, smooth yet effective. I hate to say the line “makes you feel like” but I can say, without any regret, that ABZÛ’s movement style makes you feel like you’re actually maneuvering underwater, and it doesn’t suffer from the awkward control schemes that many games with underwater levels fall victim to. It’s enjoyable to control the diver in ABZÛ and often found myself just swimming around because of how smooth it is to do so.
I only had two minor control issues with ABZÛ — one is gameplay related, the other being Switch controller related. For the gameplay issue, there’s a “meditating” feature that lets you pause and observe the sea creatures that are around you. Toggling which sea creature to view next is a bit troublesome given that there’s no indicator as to which fish you’ll be viewing next depending on if you move left or right on the joystick.
The Switch control scheme works well, but the right Joy-Con stick, which is used for the game’s camera, is hard to use if you’re pressing and holding “B” for boosting (swimming faster). Aside from these two minor issues, ABZÛ’s controls are basically flawless.
ABZÛ is one of the most relaxing, stress-free gaming experiences I’ve ever had. It offers a refreshing and unique take on what a video game can be, look, and feel. It’s simple yet elaborate, subtle yet graceful, and small yet vast — which makes it an absolutely beautiful game.
Even after playing all the way through ABZÛ again, I never felt bored or uninterested. Instead, playing it again was like reliving a delightful adventure — because of ABZÛ’s wondrous and freestyle, engrossing narrative, bright world, mesmerizing soundtrack, and attention to detail. ABZÛ isn’t about the destination; it’s about the journey, which is why I consider it to be one of the most impactful and memorable games of all time.
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