The 2016 adventure game, ABZÛ, developed by Giant Squid Studios and published by 505 Games, seeks to submerge players into the aquatic life. The game’s title is a compounding of words meaning “ocean” and “to know.” Abzû (or the Akkadian apsȗ), according to myth, was an ancient Mesopotamian god who took on the form of the freshwater ocean on which the Earth was created. The game focuses on exploring a rich marine setting while finding hints and mysteries of a sunken, though technological, civilization – elements that tie into the namesake.
Players spend roughly 90% of the game underwater, as is expected considering the game’s promotional material. Throughout the course of the game, you pass through different sections, each complete with its own unique look. A brief introduction informs players of the existence of underwater portals. The diver travels through these portals to release various marine life species and restore them to their respected ecosystems. This is complemented by mysterious evidence of a past civilization’s existence. These hooks draw players into a memorable, immersive few hours.
Simply put, ABZÛ is a very experiential game. It is not plot-driven in the traditional sense and this permeates the game’s story and tone. Players simply start and experiences the game, all while attempting to connect the dots on your own. This method of storytelling is nice for a change as it offers a different style rather than spoon-feeding narrative elements to the player.
ABZÛ’s gameplay elements complement the pelagic motif of the game. For the most part, the controls are fluid, but they are sensitive and players can easily lose control as up or down movements can quickly become unintended revolutions. This can be a bit frustrating at times, but it meshes surprisingly well with the notion that the Earth's oceans are wild, untamable bodies of water. The very limited time spent outside of the water feels much more restricted and the game's control schemes are quite rigid. Clearly, the underwater elements are where ABZÛ shines.
The game features some very light puzzle elements, which intersect with both the underwater and surface level sections. These are quite easy to complete and really boil down to travelling to a specific section of the map and activating a switch. Maybe it was the slight change of pace from the game’s explorative side, but it was during these moments that I found the pace to notably shift and stagnate. Although it was painless and simply took a few moments to travel from location to location, after time, the puzzle sections took me out of the game and left me wanting to return to exploring the game’s beautiful environments and thalassic life.
The visuals and art design is where ABZÛ is at its strongest. The art style is an amalgam that reminded me of the timeless art featured in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and photorealistic components that invoked memories of aquarium visits. These two art styles blend together seamlessly in the final product.
The marine life is composed of bright and stunning (and accurate) depictions of their real life counterparts. The fluidity of movement of not only the player (especially the dolphin kicks), but the plants, various marine life, and currents, coupled with the sheer diversity of ecosystems, succeed in making ABZÛ feel and look unique and well-realized.
ABZÛ’s sound design is excellent. The audio cues from the eclectic mix of marine life augment the player’s engagement with the game. Similarly, the music is also very well done. Austin Wintory’s compositions help communicate a sense of awe, mystery, and adventure. Whether it’s hearing the clicks and whistles of dolphins, or a whale song from a pod of humpbacks, or the light, feathery music as you ride a jet stream, you will quickly notice and appreciate these factors during your time with ABZÛ.
In the end, ABZÛ is a solid, beautiful game. I really appreciated the aquatic aesthetic, as well as the artistic and musical elements. Also (no spoilers here), by the end of the game, one message I took away from ABZÛ was that things are often not what they seem to be at first glance.
ABZÛ clearly and powerfully communicates the important message contained in the idiom, "Don't judge a book by its cover." For much of the game, I was rooting for the demise of one particular element. However, by the game's conclusion, my perspective had changed completely and the once loathed component became my favorite, most memorable piece of ABZÛ’s experience. With no dialogue, ABZÛ was able to effectively convey that lesson; it is one that should be renewed in all of our minds.
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Rating: E; Descriptors: Mild fantasy violence
 http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/listofdeities/enki/; http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/gods/explore/apsu.html.