ABZÛ is the latest experimental game to arrive on the PlayStation platform, and the first title released by Giant Squid Studios. The studio was founded by Matt Nava, Art Director for Flower and Journey during his time at Thatgamecompany; it’s no surprise that ABZÛ follows a similar model to his two previous titles.
ABZÛ is a difficult game to review for two key reasons. It’s not a traditional gaming experience, and as such there aren’t as many standard metrics to compare the game to. Second – and much like Flower and Journey – talking too much about what the game is and what it does runs the risk of ruining your experience. I’m going to do my best to avoid divulging too much, but if I said nothing at all it’d be a pretty short review (that said, it’s good; play it). If you don’t get it by now, I’ll say it officially: if you don’t want ANY part of this game spoiled for you, stop reading now.
From the outset, ABZÛ gives you very little information. You find yourself in control of a female diver, swimming through pools and caves underwater. You have no limit to your breath and you can set off some sort of sonar ping. That’s about it. From there, you’re gently guided through the game in what amounts to a very wide corridor, enjoying the scenery and trying to intuit the story from the ambient clues in the world you experience.
While I’ve described it as a wide corridor, a more descriptive version would be that ABZÛ is broken down into a series of mini-hubs. Sometimes you will need to solve some basic form of puzzle, or simply find something in the environment to let you progress. There are several key milestones you’ll achieve as you move through the world that build up to the ending, but it’s never clear WHAT you are achieving until the end. Even then, I’m only mostly confident I know what was going on. The developers have hinted at an extra treat for players who find everything in the world, but apparently I missed at least one ‘thing’ in my review playthrough because I’m still a little in the dark.
That said, not understanding what’s going on is all part of the experience. Games like ABZÛ and Journey are not designed to be played in a mad dash for the end, but rather as a more relaxed, exploratory experience. By taking the time to poke in every nook and cranny of the world you’ll reveal extra elements that expand the game itself. It was only halfway through the game that I realised the statues that pop up occasionally through the world act as meditation points, allowing you to chill out and allow the game to follow along with random underwater life as it moves through the world.
Honestly, the meditation mechanic is an inspired choice. ABZÛ is a BEAUTIFUL game full of colour and light, and it’d be a crying shame not to sit back and enjoy it, at least for a while. The sheer variety of marine life included in this game is expansive and lovingly rendered, and it means that every area is full of constantly changing scenery. Fish will even hunt and eat each other, based on their actual food chains, and watching a shoal of fish scatter in the face of a predator is a pretty impressive sight.
At the end of the day it’s hard not to compare ABZÛ to Matt Nava’s previous titles – as you can see from the number of times they’re mentioned above. Each one relies on you to do the legwork to understand their narrative, rather than spelling it out to you. Each was a uniquely beautiful experience that made the most of the technology available to it, and none of them behave like a ‘traditional’ game in doing so. If you’re the kind of gamer who typically needs explicit direction or a heavily mechanics-focused game experience, you may think that ABZÛ isn’t for you. Move beyond that and give it a try. Between the rich visuals, orchestral soundtrack and chill playing experience, you’ll find something to like.
ABZÛ was reviewed using a promotional code on PS4, as provided by the publisher.