After the prolonged and acutely painful development woes that befell Thatgamecompany’s Journey, it’s not at all surprising that the game’s art director – Matt Nava – chose to jump ship and start his own Giant Squid company – with initial set up costs provided by London based movie studio Ink Factory, before 505 Games stepped in to offer publishing support on the Santa Monica studio’s first in-house developed title. In this context, and whilst Abzu parlays Matt Nava’s previous industry lineage and development experience with Journey to become a springboard for the ambitious creative director to build “experimental, narrative and meaningful games“, it’s unfortunate that Abzu truncates these expectations by failing to find its own identity, instead opting to double down on the ex-Thatgamecompany staff’s professional legacy in order to become “Journey underwater“.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as those who enjoyed Journey will find much to appreciate in Giant Squid’s deep sea diving effort, as Matt Nava’s previous experience on the sand duned masterpiece certainly pays off. But for anyone else, Abzu‘s rigid adherence to a template that was successfully forged and laid down by Journey, even though it’s iterative in execution, acts to both highlight the game’s innumerable strengths whilst also undermining its core appeal when juxtapositional comparisons are made. And that’s a shame, because in a risk-averse industry that often times has great difficulty in deviating from highly successful formulae, Abzu‘s formulaic release is an uncommon milestone that should be worthy of much jubilant celebration.
From the off, the first thing that grabs one’s attention is how colourful and utterly captivating the game’s water-based visuals are. With the lush cell-shaded graphics and arresting aqua themed effects abundantly showcasing what Sony’s PS4 is capable of, Abzu serves up a compelling argument as to why powerful hardware is oftentimes a necessary prerequisite in enabling game creators to carve out experiences that match their vision – where they’re not constrained by technological limitations. It’s also why Nintendo’s bizarre strategy of working with underpowered hardware seems so counterproductive, as the company is clearly undermining its employees’ ability to maximise their innate potential whilst simultaneously hindering their ability in engineering captivating experiences that are consistent with industry and consumer expectations. As an example, and despite what over-zealous Nintendo fans would have you believe, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a clearly demonstrable example of EAD’s failure to produce games that are consistent with industry-wide graphical and design standards – thus enabling other software developers to steal the march on Nintendo (via games like Skyrim and The Witcher 3) – thus forcing the company into offering up yesterday’s experiences tomorrow.
With Abzu‘s initial scene depicting a sunny sky as the camera starts to pan slowly across the clear blue sea, after which it submerges below the watery depths to reveal various underwater life-forms, travelling further and further down into the watery depths of the ocean, before settling upon a mysterious red vortex, we’re granted a brief amount of exposition before the scene suddenly shifts back to the ocean surface to reveal an underwater diver that gains consciousness moments later – with no knowledge of how they got there.
With so little back-story at one’s perusal, the player immediately finds themself in control of the diver, and it’s up to you to figure out as to why you are there as you embark upon your quest. In this context therefore, Journey‘s influence on Abzu is immediately apparent, as both games drop you in the middle of a scenario where the player has to explore their surroundings, but has no clear indication as to why they are there, or what the main objective is.
With one’s curiosity piqued, and after a few moments during which the player can check their bearings and paddle across the sea’s surface, the game prompts you into making a dive. It’s at this point that Austin Wintory’s sumptuous score kicks in, with his elegantly crafted music blending in seamlessly with the beautiful dreamlike visuals. And with the game instilling a childlike sense of exploration, as one surveys the underwater landscape that is teeming with fish, it’s also during this period that one is tasked to acquaint themselves with the game’s controls.
One of the major difficulties that developers face in creating 3D games is making sure that the controls are intuitive enough so as to allow the player to explore their environment whilst the camera is also able to keep track of player movement. And whilst Journey manages to accomplish this feat by enabling the player to traverse their surroundings in a free-form manner, it’s worth bearing in mind that the player’s entire movements are subject to the forces of gravity – where traversal is grounded on a desert plain. In Abzu however, and with the game set underwater, it soon becomes apparent that the extra movement dimension has yielded a scenario where, although the camera and player controls are functional, they’re not entirely perfect. Which is a shame as although Giant Squid should be commended for setting their game underwater, it soon becomes apparent that the reason as to why there are so few games that take a similar approach is because it’s incredibly difficult to have convincing free-form navigation as part of a 3D space where the controls are also in 3D. In this context therefore, and even after I had adjusted to the controls, I still felt as if my movement was hindered as a consequence of the camera not being intelligent enough so as to take into account my actions – with the result being that I oftentimes had to wrestle for control of the camera.
With the extra dimension yielding some difficulty in movement, one would also expect the controls to also be needlessly difficult. However, nothing could be further from the truth, as whilst navigating the 3D space is sometimes challenging, the controls however are pretty simple for the most part – with tutorial prompts making learning the controls incredibly easy. In fact, one only really needs the twin-sticks as well as about three buttons to get by in the game.
With the cell-shaded graphics instilling a childlike sense of wonder, the game encourages free form exploration – even if its environments are deceptively linear in comparison. And whilst Matt Nava’s desert-filled previous work was an incredibly lonesome experience, Abzu‘s world however is absolutely bursting with life, with certain parts of the game making you wonder as to how the developer was able to get so many fishes within one scene – where each animal is exquisitely detailed and individually animated. And to be honest, upon witnessing Giant Squid’s efforts, I’m again reminded of how glad I am that the developer had the artistic and commercial sense to release the game on Sony’s powerful PS4 console, as opposed to gimping their vision via having it come out on Nintendo’s underpowered hardware.
With the sea offering such a vast and unexplored habitat, Abzu has immense potential in allowing the player to fulfil their underwater scuba diving fantasies. But with the game’s marketing campaign raising such expectations from the outset, it’s somewhat disappointing to discover that the open-world nature of the game’s oceanic environment isn’t explored more fully – with the game-world littered with underwater corridors and arenas that impinge upon one’s freedom via the use of invisible walls. This is a disappointing turn of events as whilst Abzu does offer a world that genuinely intrigues, the real-world implications of not allowing one to fully immerse themself within their environment often leads to the shattering of player illusion. And whilst these shortcuts in designing the game world are understandable because of the studio’s small size, they also prove that Abzu‘s scope is beyond the stretched capabilities of the developer, and that it would have been more appropriate if the game had more resources allocated towards it prior to release.
The lack of open-space also explains as to why the Abzu is relatively short and can be comfortably completed in under five hours – with some users reporting that they finished it in under two. This is a length that is consistent with Journey, which I also completed in under four hours – yet that didn’t stop the desert-set title from receiving numerous accolades and plaudits from the industry and fans.
As someone who doesn’t believe that a game’s length should be a determining factor as to whether someone should opt to purchase a title – especially in an age where people have insanely large backlogs and are unable to complete the vast majority of their games – I’m glad that Abzu isn’t especially long. This is partly because life is short, and by limiting one’s gaming experiences, one is essentially limiting the richness of their character. But also because Giant Squid finds it difficult to maintain Abzu‘s submersive sense of wonder that it was so easily able to instil early on. This is partially due to the game’s linear environments, where despite the changing of colour palettes that reflected different areas, I found myself getting increasingly bored me as I was forced to traverse endless corridors.
Of course, in an industry that is symbolised by Call of Duty and its own “corridor based shooter” experiences that are regurgitated wholesale year after year, it does seem churlish to belittle Abzu when so many other games take a successful cookie cutter template and re-release these with a fresh lick of paint each year – with Nintendo being an obvious culprit for making the same game every console cycle. But if one were to refer back to Call of Duty, the reason as to why Activision’s FPS franchise is able to stay fresh and engaging is because it liberally sprinkles its campaigns with story exposition that is often spectacle-laden and dramatic in nature. And whilst Abzu does take a similar approach – especially with regards to how it introduces a great white shark that terrifyingly stalks you throughout the game, together with moments that have you swimming with whales as Austin Wintory’s emotionally wrought soundtrack plays in the background – these moments are few and far between and don’t necessarily give too much explanation as to what Abzu is about, with the result being that the game starts to become increasingly repetitive as one is continuously tasked to go down endless underwater corridors and arenas.
Luckily, Abzu is able to salvage its inherent monotony by renewing its commitment to story later on in the game. But with the campaign being so short, the entire experience does come across as being quite uneven and disjointed as a result. And to be honest, if it weren’t for Abzu‘s renewed emphasis on narrative later on, Giant Squid’s effort wouldn’t be as memorable as a consequence. That’s not to say that Abzu is a bad game, as there are still plenty of moments that enthral. But even if Giant Squid’s title is meandering and unclear in its focus, it still accomplishes Giant Squid’s objective of creating an experimental, narrative and meaningful game – with the central premise based upon exploring the relationship between man and the aquatic ecosystem.
In closing, it’s unfortunate that Abzu will always come to be defined by Matt Nava’s previous work, as the developer has always traded off his previous association with Thatgamecompany. And whilst Abzu does deliver upon its promise of being “Journey underwater“, it’s also worth noting that there was a reason as to why Thatgamecompany’s title was so short – if only because the developer knew as to how certain experiences could be maximised in their effectiveness if they were deliberately kept short and not needlessly dragged on.
By committing themselves to so slavishly following the template as laid down by Journey, and despite the pedigree, the developers at Giant Squid have ultimately failed to grasp as to what made Journey so special – i.e. it offered a once in a lifetime experience that often robbed the user of its inherent richness via repeated playthroughs. Abzu suffers from this same problem in that I often felt as if I was playing Journey all over again, with the result being that Giant Squid’s game often comes across as being a cynical retread that isn’t as fresh an experience as the developer had hoped. And to be honest, that was always going to be Abzu‘s problem and dilemma – how does a game live up to the impossibly high expectations set by Journey, when it so resolutely follows the same gameplay formula that ultimately prevents it from carving out its own unique identity that doesn’t beholden it to Journey‘s shadow?
Still, Giant Squid Studios must be commended as there is a lot going for their first effort. And with rumours circulating that Abzu might be getting picked up for a physical release at the end of September, I’m certainly looking forward to supporting 505 Games’ publishing endeavour. Because despite the game’s niggling problems that ultimately rob it of true greatness, Abzu is a title that is wholeheartedly worthy of recommendation, and one whose creative ethos I’d like to see more of in the industry.
Abzu was reviewed using PS4 download code as supplied by Giant Squid’s PR.