Developer: Giant Squid Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
# of Players: 1
ESRB Rating: E (Everyone)
With so many indie games flooding the market these days worth checking out, a few of them have either dropped off my radar, are already on it but not out yet, or never landed there in the first place because keeping track of them all is a Herculean task with me as Sisyphus filling in for the duration. Giant Squid’s absolutely stunning ABZÛ fell into the first category partially thanks to me seeing who was behind it last year and thinking “Eh, it’s in good hands, so it doesn’t need me pushing it at all.”
Amusingly enough, that intentional ignorance worked out in my favor when I finally got to play the game last week when 505 Games bought it to NYC. I went in with no expectations other than thinking I’d get maybe an hour’s playtime in and enough impressions to write up a dandy hands-on post. A few hours later, I had to *force* myself to stop playing the game and make a graceful exit with my head filled with too many gorgeous images and a desire to see what the final two levels I’d left untouched held in store. Echoes of that Ecco the Dolphin on the Dreamcast and the underappreciated PS1 and PS3 Aquanaut’s Holiday games floated in my brain all the way back home, lasting until I got an email with review codes. Then, it was time to take a trip back under the sea and dream out loud again.
An incredibly beautiful, masterfully crafted and about as great as it gets game experience, ABZÛ soars to some impressive visual and aural heights as it takes you to deep places you’d never thought you’d go outside watching a nature program. You can call it a “spiritual successor” to thatgamecompany’s Journey if you like, but the single player focus and grander sense of scale makes this even more personal. This ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the “See”‘ has to me, a more grounded and pure emotional impact because of its blend of realism and fantastic elements grab you right from the start as the game takes you on a thrilling yet paradoxically mostly relaxing ride that changes in tone a few times before it ends.
As with Journey, it’s also a game that’s just great to watch someone play. Controls are simple, fluid and intuitive enough for anyone that can hold a controller (or use a keyboard and mouse on PC) can hop in and fully enjoy the entire game from start to finish. The replay value is also more than there as this is one of those games where you can hop into a map and actually have your character meditate serenely as assorted sea life does its circle of life thing all around you.
“So what’s the game about?” you ask? Well, allow me to be as intentionally and gleefully cryptic as I can as I crib all you need to know from the official site:
The story of ABZÛ is a universal myth that resonates across cultures. The name references a concept from the oldest mythologies; it is the combination of the two ancient words AB, meaning ocean, and ZÛ, meaning to know. ABZÛ is the ocean of wisdom.
In a nutshell, that says volumes because of the unconventional storytelling on display. Presented without a line of dialog, UI, map or onscreen text outside the controller images onscreen that only appear at the start of the first play through, ABZÛ requires your immediate attention as it never tells you what to do or where to go past that intentionally limited tutorial. The alien-like, nameless character you play is noted as female in press materials and on the game’s site, but she’s as formless as can be and not a thing calls attention to her as any sort of exploitable sex object. As to why she’s a she? It’s a mix of “Who cares, this game is BRILLIANT!” and paying close attention to the temple-like shrines in the game and what’s inside them.
Your svelte, nimble swimmer has no air supply to collect, nor any sort of life bar to worry about. Again, this is Giant Squid wanting each player to play distraction-free and literally dive into the deep to explore at will. Drones can be found throughout the game that, once activated, allow access to new areas with the press of a button. These cute yellow ‘bots also serve as temporary and welcome company during a handful of deep dive sections where the sense of scale can be overwhelming. That said, fr all that beauty on screen, some portions of the game will probably give some with serious cases of Thalassophobia some jittery moments when the bottom seems bottomless and you need to do a bit of searching, soul and otherwise. If it’s any consolation, larger fish and sea mammals can be grabbed for some fun as hell joyriding. Try it once and you’ll be grinning all day.
While the overall “story” is open to interpretation, what’s not debatable is how incredible the game looks. The Unreal 4 engine is used masterfully throughout with a lush stylized realism, a wide range of colors and plenty of variety in each area. Everything runs at a silky smooth frame rate and as impressively packed with detail as some of these screen are, this is a game you need to see in motion as well as play to fully grasp. The sense of immersion is such that the game doesn’t need any gimmicky VR tricks to blow your mind on constant basis. As noted above, the simple controls and extremely responsive movements make the game a total joy to play. While a controller is recommended, those who want to use a mouse and keyboard for the PC version can indeed do so. If anything, it makes taking screenshots easier with the F12 button a pinky away.
And then, there are the fish. Wow. The assorted fish, crustaceans, mammals and other undersea inhabitants here are realistically animated to the point of distraction. There’s no better example of this than a particular sequence involving whales that I won’t spoil other than to say, some will find it majestically overwhelming. There are also a dozen meditation statues located throughout the game where you can sit your character down on top and meditate by tapping the touch pad (PS4) or Back button (Xbox 360 or other similar controller). You’ll end up as a random fish or other sea dwelling creature, zipping along as part of a school or lone
wolf-ing, er, shark-ing it around the area. Yes, your wee little anchovy or bigger sea bass may (okay, WILL) get chomped by a larger predator (which in turn nets you the most humorous trophy in the game, as far as I know). But you’ll be seeking out all those statues just so you can revisit them at any time (even mid-game) and just relax for a spell with a little digital nature.
Everything is tied together by an outstanding score by Austin Wintory that reaches for the stars and feels like an organic extension to the visuals. His music so well conveys the wonder, drama, depth and mystery of the sea without going full nautical on your ears. There are some ethereal moments that recall György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna from the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack. But the overall score is such a driving force that it’s hard to see anyone else doing music for the game. By the way, for a game with not a single line of dialog, the emotions conveyed here and guaranteed to be felt by anyone with a pulse (and not checking their watch or clock for game time spent) span a wide enough spectrum to make this game hard to generically categorize.
There are some extremely minor dings here, but none take anything away from the game’s overall impact. In fact, I had to play the game twice to find something to actually gripe about below this first non-problem. In some cases, the camera can’t be controlled for good reason because the game is programmed to guide you visually up to a point. This leads to the rare occasion where you may think the camera is unresponsive when it’s merely trying to “show” you where to go.
The other minor issue relates to navigation, but it’s worth noting because some will report it as a “bug” or “glitch” because they have nothing better to do than unpaid QA (little in-joke there, kids -step away from the keyboard!). Near the end of the game, there are a series of very joyous, fast moving sections where if you slow your roll and try to bask in the scenery or explore past a certain point, you’ll see sea life clipping through walls. Given that these sections blaze by quickly and you’re not supposed to backtrack, I’m betting not many people will even mind.
Of course, for some of you waiting with bated breath, your burning question of the moment is “So, how long is ABZÛ, anyway?”, to which I answer with a “That depends on you.” My first time through on PC was 4 hours, 57 minutes. But I missed five of the hidden shell collectibles and one meditation statue. My second time through was spent scouring maps and finding that relaxing spot and three of the five shells I needed plus just messing around with counting fish on screen (I stopped at “a lot!” a few times), which added about four more hours. Diving into the PS4 version netted similar results (4:43 and 3:58 respectively and yes, the game looks great on console as well), but I’m not done with this by a long shot.
Those last two shells I’m determined to get just so I have everything unlocked, plus I think I missed a few of those unusual holes where activating them adds more sea life to maps. Amusingly enough, in the PC version, none of the achievements even worked until I went back to the game around 10pm Monday to get some more screenshots and a few popped in a row during one sequence when I rode a big fish, barrel rolled it and breached the surface in one smooth motion. Guess who’s about to play this game once more from beginning to end in order to get the rest of those awards to pop?
To me, that’s time well spent and as with Journey being a game many of its fans played dozens of times, ABZÛ is going to be sitting on a bunch of hard drives for quite some time. Those hieroglyphs and symbols you see all over certain objects? Bet you a nickel someone really smart is going to be sitting down and writing up a really lengthy translation at some point. As for the rest of us, we’ll be spending time in this glorious, sweeping, compelling and deeper than it looks game that’s going to deserve any and every award it gets when the time comes. 505 Games and Giant Squid have a hit here that deserves a space in any gamer’s library who want something memorable and worth showing off to even non-gaming friends and family as an interactive work of art.
*(or 10/10, if you’re a numbers person)
Review codes provided by the publisher.