The Nintendo Switch is becoming this generation’s version of the Nintendo DS. That is to say, it’s a console that is attracting back all the people who gave up on video games and bringing in folks who have previously shunned the pastime. The DS had this amazing advantage to incorporate a bunch of non game software titles, from study guides to translators, story books and health coaches. While the allure of watching video on the DS can’t be replicated on the Switch (not now that everyone has a damn smartphone), there’s still a great avenue for people to try acclaimed and magnificent games on a machine that’s just as portable as a tablet but significantly better geared to the experience. One such title that’s sure to grab the hearts and minds of potential customers is Giant Squid Studios’ breathtaking journey, Abzû.
Awakening. You are a diver, and you are alone, in the middle of the ocean, with no land in sight. There’s no explanation, no reasoning, but also no sense of fear. You’re fully equipped for the location you’re in, and your equipment, including a state-of-the-art helmet, seems to draw oxygen from the water itself, keeping you alive and dry. You begin to explore the area around you, as the floor of the sea holds more detail and direction than the endless blue above. Gradually, you discover points of light and symbols on the ground, and technology and mysticism are presented to you. You find allies in the ocean life, and you begin to realize there is something deeper and possibly darker at work. With no other options and no other choice, you set out to find what has stripped the ocean of its wonder, and discover an entire civilization you could have never anticipated before.
With Abzû, the name of the game is wordless storytelling. From start to finish, you won’t have a single vocal clue to really let you know what’s going on, but you start to piece it together almost immediately. Various sigils on the ocean floor can be communicated with through your sonar helmet, and it will either bring forward drones to help navigate and light your way, or, strangely enough, summon fish. It’s almost like the creatures are being released from a pocket prison somewhere, and their return to the land is a joyous moment that also helps move you forward. Gradually, you’ll find out that there’s some kind of evil pyramid structures that seem to be absorbing the energy and life out of the planet, starting with the oceans, and you gotta stop it by any means necessary. Between you and the end game is about two hours (seriously, only two) of exploration, very light puzzle solving and some dramatically excellent iconography of ancient mythology and ideas.
One of the greatest things that Abzû is able to convey is size and immensity over a period of time. When you start out and the ocean is vast, it’s comforting to dive down and begin exploring the chambered rooms and caves where a majority of your time takes place. You gradually realize the rooms are getting bigger, and you need to explore deeper and longer to find the next area. This is where the slightly ridiculous ability to ride on passing sea life comes into play, but it’s fun and done in a very organic way. You simply grab a hold of a passing fish/turtle/shark and hang on as they drag you in one direction or another. It’s almost like a speed travel to help cover the distance, but you still appreciate the size of it. When you finally get into certain temple-like rooms and discover pictographs that outline more of what the hell is going on and your role in the whole ordeal, I have to use the very literal feeling of awesome to describe the enormity of these moments. It’s not the open world, sprawling map like Breath of the Wild, where you say “Damn, that’s big, this is going to take a while.” It’s a humbling sensation of “Woah. This is all so much bigger than me, and I am very small, and I am very, very lucky to be here.”
These kind of designs wouldn’t be nearly as effective without some artistic license being used to properly draw and create the different ocean lives, and this is where Giant Squid Studios really excels. Everyone nowadays worries about how water will look in CGI and design, and they’ve mostly taken the pressure off themselves by straight up immersing you in water for a good 95% of the game, with occasional breaks to the surface and other non-aquatic areas. Instead, we refocus about what’s in the water, from the seaweed and rock formations to the denizens of the deep, including a massive great white shark that bonds with you. Instead of working on photo realism a la Ace of Seafood, these fish and mollusks are done in such a way that they feel like natural extensions and inhabitants of the ocean as Abzû portrays it. Everything is cohesive: your move from one place to the next is like an oceanic tapestry, and all the fish and creatures are beautiful accents to draw attention to the panel, give definition to where you are and what you’re doing. And when they explode out of their runic cells and rejoin the oceanic world, you rejoice: not only are you unlocking a necessary step to move forward in the game, but you also bring further balance back to this world.
Now, for me, I had never played Abzû before, so getting used to the perspective and the controls was an easy enough task that feels quite natural on the Nintendo Switch. There’s no stuttering or drops with the playback, though, granted, nothing felt like it was too demanding on the Switch at any point. The gorgeous, ambient soundtrack came through, crystal clear, to highlight the moments of awe, mystery and urgency as I continued forward to save the watery world. The pacing holds up well throughout, as you rarely feel moments where the game isn’t quite sure what to do and the player never feels completely lost. Probably the biggest complaint I have is when you get caught up in the game and forget, for a moment, that it’s ultimately meant to be linear, meaning that your quest to find hidden secrets and such is admirable but not necessary. Moreover, if you’re like me and can easily lose track of things, you’ll follow your attention span to look to another area, find nothing, and need to take a couple extra minutes to find your way back and remember which direction is “next.” Keeping that in mind, it still took just a couple of hours to play the game, start to finish.
Abzû is a stunning display of artist creation and efficient, minimalist gameplay to deliver an immersive package that hits all the right points for players trying to find a game that’s somewhere between relaxing and engaging. You won’t be grinding for levels or finding equipment at every turn, but this feels like more than just a walking simulator. There’s a slight bit of complexity beneath the surface, a bit more to how to interact and follow the dolphins and ride the currents that makes it just south of exciting. It might be a long time before I revisit Abzû (simply because it’s too cold to go swimming and seeing those gorgeous tropical reefs makes me furious with winter), but I’ll definitely be back. There’s something here, something fantastic, and this is a damn good place to discover it.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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