I didn't know what I'd find within Abzû's waters, or whether the answers I was looking for were truly down in the depths. The more I played, the more I became fixated on finding explanations in every facet of the game's story and a clear sense of how its gameplay compared to other titles I've played. That clarity is there if you want it, but in the end I found more pleasure in the moments and world that developer Giant Squid created than the actual reasons at its center.
Abzû creates its own space between genres and expectations. I explored the seas as a lonesome diver and relished letting my curiosity take over as I opened new areas, encountered sea life, and investigated the forces acting against the ecosystem. The game has simple gameplay mechanics that let you interact with the world in order to continue your movement through it, but gameplay is not the core of the experience.
Abzû is not an open world, but it's exciting to see what's around every corner, even if the path you're treading is linear. The environment doesn't have a lot of objects or avenues for interaction, but it's also not like an adventure title where you are reduced to running around the room pressing a button just to see if you can make something happen. The ambient sea life fills this void like a character in and of itself, and you can study their hypnotic movements from meditation spots in the environment.
Becoming entranced with Abzû is easy. The placid sea life and the sumptuous visuals envelop you, and both are refreshed by great diversity. Austin Wintory's excellent soundtrack surrounds the entire experience. It's more than an accompaniment; like the sea life that fills the screen, the music is a vital component that imbues everything that happens. The ambient sounds also do a great job carving a niche through the otherwise silent murk.
As I uncovered buried drones that opened new areas, and discovered glyphs depicting the concerns of a previous civilization, I started to wonder if there were other gameplay surprises in store. But when the simple switches to open gates didn't hold my attention, invariably something would happen – like joining a pod of blue whales diving into parts unknown – that would re-capture my attention and fire my imagination. At moments like this I ceased to care about gameplay. In this way, Giant Squid attempts a delicate equilibrium in Abzû; adding additional gameplay elements like more controls or brain-twisting puzzles, or bowing to gameification, would evaporate what it is.
Yet I'm at a loss for what exactly this game is missing. Instead, I can only understand it by corollary: I didn't feel fundamentally different about the game world or my experience in it at the end as I did the beginning. Abzû's story of a diver transforming an underwater world and uncovering its secrets wasn't exactly disappointing, but the greatest moments are those you find outside of the story: the majesty of a giant squid or the rhythmic movements of an ecosystem that feels alive.
The themes of evolution and artificial intelligence remind me of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (co-written by noted author Arthur C. Clarke), which puts it in heady territory. Is the game's great white shark the monolith? The machine intelligence in the game even has a reddish mono eye similar to HAL 9000, and needless to say isn't a very friendly presence. How did that happen?
Abzû is a game of mysteries and its world will move you to muse the beauty of life and our place in it. It contains moments that transcend the simple act of playing a video game by making a connection with the beings around you – a profound experience. But the more I try to earnestly weigh the substance of the story the more I feel like I am missing the essence of what is before me – not unlike Kubrick's movie. After the film was released, a lot of critics asked him what it meant, but he didn't want to be drawn into any exact explanation. There simply isn't one, and he preferred the viewer absorb the experience and reflect on their own thoughts regardless. Abzû treads similar lines, and is closer to being a work of art than many games ever will be. Whether you're supposed to play a game or experience it is a larger question that Abzû does not solve, but only indulges. Still, it must be judged by that query even if the answer is ultimately up to you.
This game also appears on the PC. This review pertains to the PS4 edition.
Whether you're supposed to play a game or experience it is a larger question that Abzu does not solve, but only indulges.