A lot of people loved Journey. I can’t claim to be one of them, on the basis that I don’t own the console that it was exclusive to, but I can appreciate at a distance the praise that Journey was given and I understand why it still comes with such high recommendations even today.
● Casual Adventure
● Released 02 / 08 / 2016
● Developed by Giant Squid
● Published by 505 Games
● Platform: PS4 / X-Box One / PC
[played on PC]
Journey was a very fine example of how a game can be blissfully simple and still provide an evocative and emotional narrative. However, when any game (and particularly independently developed games like Journey was) receive such high praise and practically explode onto the scene to say “Hey, this genre of game is valid too when done properly!” there are certain expectations that come with follow up games. Amnesia: The Dark Descent was a very fine example of this and how it goes intriguingly awry, but we aren’t here to talk about horror games today so we’ll look at that more some other time.
ABZU is a very short game. Assuming you aren’t actively hunting all of the achievements, a very liberal and casual playthrough takes about three to four hours. This includes stopping to look at all the fish, work out the weird fucky controls even when on a controller, and exploring to try and find the little hidden goodies in the game. Like I said: it’s a short game. If you do anything less than basic “story” requirements, you probably won’t even be there for two hours, but then again this probably also isn’t the game you would want to play in the first place. And, like Journey, that’s the first thing about this game that will make it or break it for some people: ABZU has a very obvious and very simple narrative. There’s nothing subtle about the narrative, it doesn’t embellish the story at any points and it really doesn’t do anything other than just put the moral in your lap once you’re finished without really doing anything else. If you like games with heavy story content, you won’t find enjoyment here. And, spoilers, the story that ABZU does tell could be called obnoxious, because it is a story we have heard a hundred times before. “We’re killing the ocean!” “We must save the ocean!” “The ocean is beautiful and full of life in abundance but the things we do destroy it and only we can save it!”
Now don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not saying that the moral of the story is wrong. Certainly not, no. I’m just saying that the game’s presentation of its chosen moral and story is obnoxious and rather preachy if you look at it too closely.
Moving away from the story and into the more mechanical side of things, ABZU also plays very much like Journey: you can move around, you can kinda swim faster for a bit, and you can “chirp” at the environment as your only real form of interaction at any given point in time. (There are instances where you do actually interact with objects but these are few and far between and don’t actually act as a mechanic, just a “Press the button to turn the wheel” sort of thing.) Once again, if you wanted a really detailed game with intricate mechanics, you’re in the wrong place. That said, however, I actually found a great enjoyment in ABZU’s control system once I worked out how the fuck the thing worked in the first place. Even on controller – the recommended method of playing the game – learning how to swim can be a little confusing at first. The game doesn’t particularly hold your hand in any way, to a point that I do actually have to score it down just a little because I got stuck for a good ten minutes at one point and had no way of understanding how to get un-stuck until I wildly button mashed and worked it out from there. It’s very simple and sometimes it can be very jarring, but it is enjoyable once you get yourself used to it. Being able to hitch a ride on a fish, the only mechanic in this game you never need to use at all (and seen in the screenshot above, where I hitch a ride with a whale shark) is actually really fun. If the fish is big enough, you can grab a hold. Supposedly, you can do that with the blue whales that feature in the main image for this review too – but I never thought to try and haven’t gone back into the game for a while.
So this leaves us with two things: the game’s art design and the game’s music. These two sections are why I find this game scores the highest, because it’s downright fantastic. I’m not even ashamed to say I cried a little bit at the end of this game, because even though the story was a little bit preachy and it was easy to see where it was going, and even though the controls were a little clunky sometimes, this game did a fantastic job of immersing me into the world it presented through sound and visuals. Hell, to an extent, the clunky control scheme almost works in the game’s favour, because at times it really does feel like you could be swimming. The game boasts an absolutely gorgeous colour palette that has been meticulously thought out, and as a result, certain “chapters” of the game bring all sorts of emotions to the table. The screenshot below shows a later chapter of the game and acts as a perfect example of how carefully this game was put together: all reds and blacks and oranges. It’s hard to get from just a screenshot, but it felt hot and oppressive and I felt tense playing through that section of the game – even knowing nothing can actually kill me (as you’re invulnerable). The game doesn’t have a large scope in terms of set designs, as chapters aren’t very long and levels themselves aren’t wide or expansive, but when it counts this game nails the atmosphere.
In fact, the game does such a good job of this that I should probably warn you if you have hydrophobia: sections of this game will feature you swimming over a very wide expanse of open water with no bottom to it, and it does feel incredibly tense. If that sort of thing scares you, then you might actually find this game trips your phobia a little, because it really does leave you wondering whether or not something is going to surge out from the dark depths of some underwater pit of hell and savage you. The soundtrack also plays a very large part in setting up these atmospheres and making them work so well, adding a real layer of magic in the world and bringing to life every little fish or every big squid, and supercharging your imagination as you explore a breathtaking – and sometimes very foreboding – underwater world.
ABZU is hard to call a game, because it doesn’t have the contraptions of games as we’re used to them. To call it a “game” honestly does it a disservice, because it leaves you with false expectations that it simply can’t meet. ABZU is less of a game, and more of a small experience. I don’t regret buying the game at all and I don’t regret playing it; it still sits installed on my computer for a time when I want to go exploring and unlock the secrets that I missed, while taking a break from my more serious games. I wouldn’t call ABZU a story either, although it does have a story present. Rather, ABZU is like a piece of art that you’ve been invited to actually participate in. It doesn’t last as long as some games, and it doesn’t shackle you with any commitments whatsoever; you can stay as long as you want and leave when you please. It has flaws to be sure, particularly the clunky control system combined with a general refusal to explain anything at all, but that doesn’t make it any less of an enjoyable little – if you will – “journey”.
As ABZU behaves in a very similar way to Journey, I can see why Journey was praised so highly. While I feel, of the two, that Journey might be the better experience to indulge in, ABZU deserves just as much credit for challenging the notion of what a game is and showing us what a game can be when given enough love by the developers. If you enjoyed Journey, you have to pick this game up at some point and try it for yourself, because it’s extremely likely that you will enjoy it just as much. If you were looking at the game and were thinking of trying it on the basis of getting to swim with some pretty fantastically animated fish with some of the most fluid movements I’ve ever seen a game bring to the table, you can also probably pick this up and feel like you have gotten your money’s worth.
I never thought that games like Journey or ABZU would make me overly emotional, too, because generally I’m not an emotional person in games where I haven’t invested myself. Yet, ABZU did make me cry a little at the end – of all places – and it touched a part of me that I didn’t quite realise it had managed to even reach until I finished the story in the first place. You might accuse me of being a sissy for that, and honestly I might agree with you, but regardless of the truth of that statement I think it is absolutely fair to say that the game deserves to be given credit for doing that in the first place. I love ABZU in a funny way that I haven’t really enjoyed a game before outside of Dear Esther. I think you should all try it too, because it stands as such a fantastic example of just how varied our wonderful world of video games can be and just how expansive the scope and nature of video games as “art” truly is.