Abzu - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games of their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
After briefly dipping my toe into the cool waters of Giant Squid’s Abzû sometime last year, it was put aside to be saved for a time when I could fully immerse myself in the game. Given that director Matt Nava and composer Austin Wintory had previously worked on Journey —the award-winning 2012 title from Thatgamecompany — multiple replays of that game were fresh in my mind and encouraging me not to rush the experience, especially as glowing reviews heralded Abzû as its spiritual successor.
Thirty Minutes In
I have a troubled history with water in video games. Whether it is panic-inducing music as your air runs out in older platformers like Sonic the Hedgehog and Donkey Kong Country, the frustrating instadeath pitfalls of other more unforgiving titles, or horrific drowning animations showing your corpse convulsing in Tomb Raider and The Legend of Zelda games, I’m sure many a player has had a similar reaction to me when encountering these submerged worlds.
Thankfully, Abzû does a good job from the offset to dispel the creeping dread I had initially anticipated. You awake on the surface of a sunbathed ocean, the bright colours and cartoonishly appealing animation style beckoning you to begin your exploration into the world below your flippers. Shafts of light from the world above litter the early stages, and your limited interactions with the shoals of fish darting around you imbue a sense of fun and wonder (much like the chirps and whistles of the protagonist in Journey, your character can emit a small sonar wave to communicate and interact with the life around them).
The mystery of Abzû begins with your controllable character: an unspeaking humanoid in a lightly sci-fi wetsuit with no features on show save for a pair of large, slowly blinking eyes. The design of the character is streamlined, elegant, minimalist. Keeping the R2 button held down swims you slowly along, but use of the X and O buttons transform your movement into a balletic combination of somersaults and speed boosts. I can’t remember the last time movement felt so right in a game.
Serene music complements your exploration as you pass through tunnels and vegetation, the soundtrack occasionally turning ominous at the appearance of a predatory shark or the uncovering of a ruined temple — all in the best traditions of nature documentary and film alike. Choral voices are especially strong here — despite the music itself lacking quite enough dynamism when accompanying a few of these early set pieces; the vocals seamlessly shifting from joy to a foreboding wail is particularly effective at setting the tone for me.
I perch on top of a shark statue to watch the murmurations of colourful fish pass by, and it strikes me that after half an hour in the game I still don’t know what I’m meant to be doing down here, as pretty as it is. Am I looking for something in particular? To be honest, it’s bugging me a bit. At this stage I don’t have a clue what this is all in aid of, but I do want to find out.
One Hour In
The story builds, all too slowly for my taste, and with exposition exclusively in the form of symbolic mosaics left by the previous dwellers of these sunken cities. The line between intrigue and inane is trod with reckless abandon, as without a clear goal for what I was meant to be doing or looking for, I’ve spent an extended time exploring an area for secrets which turned out to be meaningless. Environmental cues sporadically exist to guide your direction, but all too often you are spat into a large cavern with no option other than to push on at random, unsure if you are heading in the right direction.
The surroundings are starting to feel to me like a waste of potential; the freedom of swimming (with no oxygen limit) in a vast body of water should be akin to flying. Despite this, little effort is made to encourage use of vertical space in the normal areas of the game. Doorways and objectives tend to be in line of sight of each other, and where’s the fun in that? Again and again, I’ll spend a minute swimming up to the surface just for the distraction of hurling myself into the air to practice some Ecco the Dolphin-style flips.
Three Hours In
We’ve passed the halfway mark and some strain is beginning to show. The camera is having trouble keeping up with the character at high speed, and as it fights your controller to adjust the viewpoint I was often sent spiralling off in the wrong direction. On two separate occasions when breaking the surface of a pool, the engine became confused regarding whether the water should be above or below me, and spent a minute glitching itself back and forth before settling back down.
Shoals of fish are getting larger and larger to give a sense of progression and building towards something significant — they’re visually impressive from a distance (and the draw distance is something the game handles very well), but once you get up close the frame rate drops to a chug as the fish robotically jerk their way past you. I wanted to feel like a Disney princess in a whirlwind of colour and magic, but instead felt like I’d been cornered by a mean gang of Big Mouth Billy Bass singing fish.
Four Hours In
The early thrills of exploration and interacting with the sea life have given way to a doggedness to simply swim in the direction of the nearest doorway in order to push on to the next set piece. The majority of activities undertaken to progress are learned by rote instead of even the gentlest puzzle — you find a locked door, follow the chains trailing out from either side of it, and swim close enough to retract them at the mechanism they are attached to. These sections feel more and more like efforts to add extra playthrough time to the game instead of offering anything new and potentially engaging to the mix. Meanwhile, I’m growing bored and impatient.
The story eventually finds a triumphant climax in a burst of momentum sorely missing from the previous stages of the game. The plot comes too little, too late, after three quarters of the game subscribed to the “neither show nor tell” school of ideas. The lack of gameplay or environment variety as you travel to the heart of the undersea world kills any notion I had of replaying it even for the areas where Abzû shines.
Hotly anticipated and widely praised upon its release in 2016, Abzû served as a must-buy for fans of the acclaimed Journey. Two years removed from that excitement, I feel that Abzû will only be talked about in comparison with Thatgamecompany’s influential title. Many of the best parts of Abzû are lifted wholesale from it, such as the way the narrative unfolds through vast mosaics found at the end of each area. Riding a deep sea current apes Journey’s famous sand-surfing stages, down to the accumulation of your fishy pals instead of scraps of sentient fabric.
Ultimately, I feel Abzû owes too much of a debt to what has come before it, and annoyances with camera and graphical issues remove much of the satisfaction from what was meant to be, on paper at least, a relaxing voyage into a mysterious sunken world.