ABZÛ is probably the most gorgeous game I’ve ever disliked. This is worth stating upfront, because it’s hard to talk about ABZÛ without addressing how flat-out, undeniably beautiful its whole aesthetic is.
The game’s visual style, rendered in Unreal Engine 4, is amazing. Its soundtrack is evocative and powerful, a tad cliché in parts but still a pleasure. Watching footage of myself playing the game was far, far more enjoyable than actually playing it.
ABZÛ may, in fact, be a perfect game for the streaming generation. A player that has spent some time getting used to the tricky controls and figuring out the way forward in any given situation is going to be able to snag some great video from the game. You travel from open oceans to underwater temples and ruins, with a full, rich color palette making each new area feel unique.
There’s every possibility that there are people who will grow to love ABZÛ without ever actually playing it, and with good reason -- developer Matt Nava, formerly of Thatgamecompany, was the art director of Flower and Journey, and knows how to craft wonder.
It might sound like ABZÛ is a case of style over substance, but this would be misleading. When people bust out that idiom, they often mean it as a sort of compliment, or a point of debate -- style can, when deployed in a certain manner or with a particular intent, be equal to substance. ABZÛ is style instead of substance, and for all its beauty, it’s utterly forgettable. I’m writing this review hours after finishing the game and I’m already struggling to recall what actually happened in it, if anything.
ABZÛ is, more or less, an underwater riff on Nava’s earlier games. You play as what appears to be a diving robot, tasked with traversing underwater environments, meeting various sea creatures and solving some extremely mild navigation puzzles over the game’s 2-3 hour run time.
You’re able to grab and ride the creatures you encounter, which makes for some hollow interaction. Otherwise it’s mostly a case of continually travelling forward, then finding the obvious caves in any big open area you encounter so that you can swim into them, press the interact button, and swim back out to travel through whichever route you just opened. The controls are irritatingly finicky, making it hard to dive and surface with any sort of precision, but there’s little room for expression and not much purpose in exploration, so that ends up not mattering so much.
Along the way, the environment changes and narrative elements slowly emerge, presenting a loose thread of a story that doesn’t beg to be pulled at. There were moments that I didn’t realise were going for emotional impact until I read the reviewer’s guide after finishing the game, because the game asks you to invest in scenes and relationships that are given no weight.
Every now and then there’ll be a mildly evocative linear sequence, akin to what some of Nava’s earlier games offered (there are, in fact, a few scenes lifted so directly from Journey that it would qualify as plagiarism if anyone else did it). You’ll get caught in a fast stream, jetting along with fish and whales and sharks, and for brief moments the game turns into something more than the sum of its parts. It starts to move fast enough to detract from how little is actually happening, and hit me with so much beauty I couldn’t help but be entranced.
These sequences are brief and there aren’t many of them, which is ultimately emblematic of ABZÛ’s larger problem -- there’s little sense of what game developer Giant Squid actually wanted to make.
Another example of this: towards the end, electrified mines start appearing in your path. Get too close to them and they’ll electrocute your diver, delaying them for a brief moment before they’re allowed to keep swimming, unperturbed. What value do they add? Are they intended as obstacles or not? They’re simply annoying; they don’t augment the game’s non-existent challenge, nor do they lead to any sort of reveal or interesting change. A lack of challenge isn’t a huge problem in and of itself, but ABZÛ doesn’t really have anything else either beyond its looks.
ABZÛ plays like a desperate attempt to recreate Journey, but without the underlying principles that made that game work. I’m not Journey’s greatest fan -- it’s beautiful and haunting, but also, in my opinion, a bit cynical about the value and purpose of human interaction and dull when played solo. ABZÛ makes that game’s many achievements even clearer (to say nothing of Flower, which I love unapologetically).
ABZÛ is a gorgeous, painterly game with no clear sense of direction or purpose. It’s artistic without being artful, a game with nothing to say beyond ‘look at me’. To its credit, it’s well worth looking at, but when you’re actually playing, it’s hard not to wonder what the point of it all is.