“Games as art” is really starting to be an interesting area of study. Developer Giant Squid, founded by Flower and Journey Art Director Matt Nava, has an interesting new entry in this genre with ABZÛ. But is there enough of a game for most gamers to give this title a chance? Or does the experience itself stand up on its own? Time to find out.
ABZÛ looks incredible. The Unreal Engine 4 allows for some breathtaking seascapes, and you may find yourself simply basking in the glorious surroundings. It makes Uncharted 4’s underwater sections look rather mundane by comparison, and as we all know, that’s saying something. Granted, there is a huge color palette swap between those two games, but I don’t believe it can be understated just how good ABZÛ looks.
It’s not all smooth swimming, however. In some of the game’s more intense scenes involving thousands of fish swimming in a large circle, the game can drop its framerate quite noticeably. It never gets to the point where things become unplayable, but it may annoy some players. A typical scene in ABZÛ contains thousands of fish and other creatures without this problem, so this appears to be an issue only at these certain points.
ABZÛ controls very well, with simple controls and a camera that only follows the direction in which you are traveling. This is important, because the ocean needs to be explored in a full 360 degrees. Having a camera that constantly oriented itself directly behind and slightly above you as in regular third-person games would be incredibly disorienting, or would have resulted in a limited moveset for the player. Instead, you are free to move in 360 degrees, and can effortlessly perform flips, quickly change direction, and more. ABZÛ only tells you how to move, interact with objects, and hitch rides on the wildlife; you are left to your own devices shortly after starting the game up, and learn the controls as you play. I will say that it was surprisingly rewarding when I figured out how to make a shark do a barrel roll, or a dolphin leap into the air Ecco-style.
Exploration Feels Right
ABZÛ begs to be explored. In every corridor, there is something to be discovered. It’s usually some sort of fish or school of fish, but is also occasionally a portal which spawns some new species of aquatic creature. One of the game-like mechanics in ABZÛ is these portals; find them all, and earn a trophy. More than that, however, you also get to see many different species of ocean life that you might have missed out on otherwise.
Speaking of species, there are a ton of them in ABZÛ. This is a game that will definitely teach some people a thing or two about what lives in our ocean, as well as what used to live there. Without spoiling anything major, just know that no matter which fantastic-looking creature you see in this game, they are all, or were, real animals here on Earth (the main character and helpers notwithstanding).
There is a story being told in ABZÛ, but like Flower and Journey before it, the story is one left open to interpretation. The whole game can be experienced in one sitting, taking no more than 2-3 hours if played through at a moderate pace. Seeing everything ABZÛ has to offer will take a couple of playthroughs. Once you’ve conquered everything, the Meditate mode can be invoked to turn your television into a power-hungry aquarium. If ABZÛ has one major detractor, it’s that when the adventure is over you wish there were more locations to explore.
One unusual thing you will run into as you explore ABZÛ is your own emotions. There’s the expected emotions: awe, excitement, even fear. Yet I never thought I would experience sadness towards a Great White Shark. But that is just the unexpected sort of thing that makes ABZÛ special. I was surprised when I felt this sadness, and the game’s final act is a rollercoaster of colors, anger, and exhilaration that blends together to make for a genuinely pleasing finish.
ABZÛ isn’t for everyone, like most artful games. Even that label, “game,” doesn’t quite fit ABZÛ. This interactive experience is one that your average FPS addict probably won’t give any thought to. These days, however, “games as art” isn’t a new category, and so the target demographic for this title is likely already sold on the concept. ABZÛ delivers a wonderful experience for those who are seeking such a thing, and it is approachable enough, that gamers who might be venturing into what is uncharted territory for them for the first time should find enough value to warrant a purchase.
What more needs to be said? ABZÛ is a beautiful experience. It’s still technically a game, but one that can be appreciated by anyone who loves bright colors, art, fish, meditation, and more. If it weren’t for the PlayStation 4’s fans kicking up due to all the high-poly rendering, it could even make for a nice virtual aquarium. For $19.99, there are definitely other games with more regular gaming content. However, ABZÛ is one experience that many people should not pass up on.
ABZÛ review code provided by publisher. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.