Giant Squid Studios’s Abzû intends to be a compelling drama about a robot and a friendly shark overpowering a mysterious authority figure deep inside an ocean. Yet the game seems almost empty because of its very linear level design, which fails to satisfy the natural urge to explore a three-dimensional realm of seemingly endless possibilities, and a spiritual vagueness that recalls the cultural ambiguities in the 2012 indie darling Journey.
You swim throughout Abzû’s underwater world as a humanoid with no need to breathe. Along the way, you notice that you can populate segments of the sea with various forms of ocean life and interact with temporary machine companions who clear new paths for you. Later in the game, you have to avoid triangular machines that shock you if you get too close and assist a scrappy shark in destroying these foes and their humongous leader (no, the story doesn’t get much more specific outside of fuzzily connecting the silent and nameless protagonist’s origin to these destructive machines).
Abzû’s section-by-section level structure is clearly inspired by Flower and Journey (incidentally, both games featured art design by Matt Nava, Giant Squid Studios’s creative director). This closed-world approach is a poorer fit for a dominion with so many mysterious life forms in its darkest corners. The awe-inspiring nature of the ocean is minimized throughout the game’s adventure-game tasks, such as opening a door by finding two switches of a sort, and in sections where the screen, representing a current, pushes you through tunnels as you run into fish for brief amusement.
More irritating, you can’t swim in certain spaces where, given your small size and diving talent, you should be able to, making Abzû feel more constrained than 1992’s Ecco the Dolphin, which brought its water world to life by more consistently allowing one to discover new areas via the titular hero’s skills. When Abzû finally presents a relatively large area to explore, the experience is still constricted by the inclusion of floating enemies that halt you with electric jolts. This type of obstacle, which requires swimming in tight, controlled spurts, is typical of underwater levels throughout video-game history, and the developer doesn’t bring anything new to this trope. Abzû’s claustrophobic design even shows up in a light that emits from your character’s chest, reminding you that you can’t swim too far away from you current objective.
Although you can invert the directional controls for the swim stroke and camera, Abzû doesn’t solve the classic problem of awkward movement in a 3D water level. If you hold the swim-downward button for too long, the game’s protagonist, against your simple intention to continue moving down, will roll and start to swim upward, meaning you have to make a mental note to release the button before this occurs. Two-dimensional games like Super Mario Bros. tend to have cruder but easier-to-handle controls in underwater settings. Unsurprisingly, then, Abzû is at its finest when you swim with humpback whales from a side-scrolling angle that doesn’t require the game’s standard 3D controls. It’s undeniably powerful seeing the biggest of the humpbacks while you get the sensation that you’re plunging deeper into the ocean.
Austin Wintory’s score, which features a full orchestra and choir, can only lend so much emotional credibility to such scenes. Abzû feigns spiritual depth by tossing in statues where you can meditate, which practically amounts to the player moving a first-person camera around to gaze at sea creatures (at least Jack King-Spooner’s Blues for Mittavinda takes a philosophical risk in citing a specific purpose for its use of meditation). It’s hard to identify the conviction in the protag as you give freedom to the sea by dismantling the oppressive machines. If the whole point is to be a good Samaritan to a neighbor who happens to be a shark, Abzû is the latest example of a game that thinks superficial empathy automatically makes art worthwhile and impressive.