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Generally when you put deep water in a video game the first reaction is going to be fear or at least acute discomfort. Water has a special propensity to terrify, by being vast and obscuring and a medium through which things can move very fast. While all manner of games from Ecco to Subnautica have used water to torment players, Abzu takes the opposite tack in presenting the ocean as a place of tranquility and meditation. This is the game you want if you’d rather swim with the seahorses and explore the colors of the seafloor than sweat about what might be lurking below.
ABZU opens with you floating in a seemingly endless ocean, just you and the gentle waters under a clear sky. With nothing on the horizon you dive beneath the waves and explore the strange and beautiful places that lie there, from kelp forests to coral reefs to deep trenches and beyond. Along the way you’ll need to find little diving drones to help you progress, learn about the functions of the strange machines at the bottom of the sea, and encounter all kinds of friendly sea life. What story there is is told entirely through the environments and occurrences as you delve deeper, requiring some attention to details and symbolism to really get anything out of it.
As a game, ABZU is pure exploration with only a hint of puzzling. Each area is fairly open but also directs you along the path the story has laid out, so don’t go in expecting an open ocean to roam. The progression of areas gives a definite sense of travelling far and deep, though, which becomes increasingly gratifying as you find stranger and stranger locales. Your explorations will be split between broad plains and plateaus and canyons where you’ll need to find drones or machines to progress, and rushing currents where you’ll navigate between rock formations and grand structures as the ocean sweeps you along. It’s a good mix of peaceful swimming punctuated with some thrills that keep you from getting too complacent.
Every area you come across will be populated with fish and other sea life, and honestly this is the real appeal of the game for me. The bright, simplistic graphics of ABZU help the ocean come alive with scores of fish, including everything from tiny guppies to massive sunfish. There are seahorses and jellyfish bobbing around, eels and squids snaking about, manatees and dolphins to play with, and even whales to hitch rides on. We’re not talking about just one or two of each, either, because ABZU revels in having schools of fish swarming about. Most areas will have hundreds of critters to watch, swim with, and even ride, which makes the areas mostly devoid of life all the more striking when you happen upon them.
There’s a little more to the game than just swimming and watching the wildlife, too. Most large areas have special statues you can perch on to meditate, allowing you to observe any of the local fish from a third-person view. There are also hidden pools you can open up to introduce even more critters into the local ecosystem, often unique types like manta rays or sea turtles. Then there are the hidden shells laying about to collect that I suppose change the ending in some way? They’re not particularly well-hidden but I passed up a few my first time through and decided to leave the rest for a future dive.
As I touched on before, the graphics are what really sell the peaceful world of ABZU. Rendering everything with bright, simple shapes makes them pop against the deep waters and draws attention to their excellent animations. The environments are expertly crafted to give impressive underwater vistas and impressions of scale, even when the areas are not actually that large. The sound design is certainly just as good, with fantastic ambient sounds and a soothing score that keeps you in just the right place for the journey. It’s a light and fluffy game, almost with the feel of a Disneyland ride with how bright and pleasant it is aside from a few moments of darkness. If you need a game that both engages and relaxes then I can’t think of anything better than this fanciful journey through a living undersea world.