Having never been, I can’t tell you what it’s like to go scuba diving. But if the third-person, underwater exploration game Abzu (PlayStation 4, PC) is any indication, then I want to be like Sebastian in The Little Mermaid (or Homer Simpson in the episode “Homer Badman”) and live under the sea.
Made by Giant Squid Studios, which includes people who previously worked on the stylistically similar games Flower and Journey, Abzu casts you as a nameless, voiceless, and somewhat faceless swimmer who can breathe underwater. When the game begins, you’re floating in a large body of water, with no sense of who you are, how you got there, and where you got these cool flippers on your feet. Diving below the surface, you see what looks like an underwater cave opening, so you head off, beginning an engaging exploration of this increasingly mysterious underwater world.
Now, most of your time in Abzu is spent swimming around, trying to figure out where to go next. Unless, of course, you’re more of a “the journey is the destination” kind of person, in which case most of your time in Abzu is spent swimming around, looking at stuff, and then occasionally trying to figure out where to go next.
But Abzu isn’t like scuba diving in Aruba. It’s more like scuba diving on an artsy version of a sci-fi world from Ratchet & Clank or Star Wars. While there are lots of cool plants and animals, there are also strange structures under the sea, some of which look like Aztec temples if the Aztecs had been visited by aliens, but those aliens built some of their elaborate temples underwater…and then those aliens went to work at Crystal Dynamics, designing levels from the three Tomb Raider games that preceded the eponymous 2013 reboot: 2006’s Legend, 2007’s Anniversary, and 2008’s Underworld.
This is where the puzzle element of Abzu comes into play. Though, to be honest, they’re not very puzzling. There are times when you’ll have to figure out how to open a door, which usually just requires you to follow some rather obvious wires back to a power source. There are also times when you have to located these autonomous, underwater ‘bots, who look like floating flashlight, but are the only way you can get through what look like screen doors made of giant spider webs.
Aiding you in your journey through Abzu are intuitive but still somewhat loose controls that really make it feel like you are controlling someone who’s underwater. Which may sound, to some, like a problem, but it really isn’t since you never do anything in this game that would require precision like you’d need in such shooters as Doom or Overwatch.
This is not to say you won’t run into some hazards in Abzu. They may look cool, those floating, upside-down pyramids you run into, like something Roger Dean would’ve done for the cover of an old Yes album, but they’re electric mines, and they will give you such a shock.
That said, you’re far more likely to get lost in Abzu than you will killed or eaten. Because you’re floating in three-dimensional space, and don’t have any kind of radar, sonar, or map, there are times when you’ll find yourself disoriented or unsure of where to go next. But the game is usually good about giving some subtle clues. In one instance, you emerge from a cave and find yourself staring at a bunch of whales. And while whales don’t speak — well, not you, anyway — their movements practically command, “Come with us if you want to live. And by ‘live,’ we mean ‘get to the next stop on your journey’.”
It also helps that while Abzu has some wide open spaces, it’s still rather linear. There are even instances when you get carried away by the current and have no choice by to enjoy the ride. But, for the most part, the game doesn’t really care what you do while you’re making your way from point A to point B. There’s nothing hurrying you along, so feel free to swim around and admire the pretty sights. You can even, in certain spots, assume the lotus position and do a bit of meditating (though, by “meditating” you’re really just sitting there and staring at the passing fish).
As engaging as Abzu may be, though, it’s not flawless by any stretch of the imagination. For starters, the autosave system can be a problem. After playing for a while, I took a break to punch some bad guys in Batman: Arkham Knight. But when I went back to Abzu, I found that I was not where I had left off, but about fifteen-minutes back. Which, admittedly, isn’t as terrible as it would be in other games — it’s not like I had to fight Killer Croc all over again — but it was still irritating.
The load times in Abzu are also a bit on the long side, which is rather odd given that the game switches seamlessly between its cinematic scenes and its interactive ones.
Abzu also doesn’t give you the option to turn the music down or off. Though this isn’t so much a practical issue as it is a preferential one since some people (like me) might think this would be more immersive if all you could hear was the sounds of the sea. Though having said that, the music is quite good and fits the vibe of the game. Especially since it really sounds a lot like the score from the three Tomb Raider games I mentioned earlier.
Most importantly, anyone expecting Abzu to be as exciting as the swimming parts in those aforementioned Tomb Raider games, or even the scuba stuff in Call Of Duty: Ghosts, will be bored out of their minds. Though as I learned alternating it with bouts of Batman: Arkham Knight, it does make for a nice change of pace when you want to take a break from punching criminals.
For those in the right frame of mind, though, Abzu is a mesmerizing trip through a serene and mysterious place, one that slowly reveals new layers as you slowly make your way. And it’s the best ad for scuba diving I’ve ever played.