Critics of so-called “walking simulators” will presumably be aiming their tiresome complaints at swimming in August, with the release of Abzû, a gorgeous game from aptly-named developer Giant Squid. If the bold colours and lush shading seem familiar, that’s because creative director Matt Nava previously served as art director on PlayStation indie darlings Flower and Journey. Playing it here at E3, Abzû feels very much like the spiritual successor to those experiences. Which is to say beautiful, meditative, and light on traditional action in a way that will delight many but infuriate a few.
You play a scuba diver in a lemon yellow helmet with angular eyes that look like they’ve been lifted from an Egyptian mural. The demo begins with the diver bobbing on the sea’s surface, from where a simple tutorial teaches you how to dive and do a butterfly kick-style boost. The latter is particularly welcome, because the injection of speed means that swimming in Abzû never feels sluggish like it does in so many other games. From what I played there’s little more to the controls than that, beyond an interaction button, and I was soon lithely darting between kaleidoscopic shoals of fish.
As for what there is to interact with, I first discovered a little aquatic drone half-buried in the sand. Once activated it swims along with you, leaving the underwater equivalent of a coloured contrail behind it. I eventually found three of these, which traced independent paths around me as I continued to explore. It felt like having a mini-flotilla of the drones you would get circling your craft in classic shmups like R-Type. Only, y’know, without all the shooting.
Not that there isn’t peril in Abzû. The drones can also help open up new areas, at one point slicing a hole through a bioorganic red mesh that enabled me to swim down a tunnel into a cavernous area filled with shimmering god rays from the sunshine above. Suddenly a shark emerged from the forest-like tendrils of seaweed. The camera tightened up to showcase the threat and I lost control for a second whilst Jaws swum off. Unfortunately I hadn’t seen the last of him, more on that later.
As for what else you do in Abzû, well, I found a statue—again, somewhat Egyptian in appearance—on the seabed, which my character was able to sit on and meditate. At that point the camera left my body and I was able to hopscotch viewpoints between various nearby fish. Amusingly, as I jumped into one it was eaten by another (a black sea bass if I recall correctly), again switching the perspective. I also found a couple sparkling ammonites that seemed to be some sort of collectible or power up. In Journey you could collect magic symbols to charge up the scarf that enabled your character to jump, so I suspect these may work similarly.
Or not. Abzû’s mystery won’t be solved by a 20-minute demo. Towards the end I found what appeared to be a temple structure, and having swum into it things took an even more surreal turn. Here it seemed I was swimming above the sea, in an ethereal realm of sorts, and when I activated a glowing object at the end of the glittering path I was on, several huge, glowing manta rays arrived. Did I mention Abzû is pretty? It is really pretty. Perhaps oddly I occasionally found myself drawn back to the surface, just to sit treading water for a second in the sunshine. It’s almost as if it can be too rich under the surface at times.
But you want to know about the shark. After the initial encounter, I pretty much forgot about it, only for the beast to suddenly lunge back into view and munch one of my drone buddies as I entered another new area. I actually yelped in a way that I had managed to avoid doing in my Resident Evil 7 demo earlier that morning. As the drone died in a bubbling fizz of electronics, I felt a weird pang of sadness. It’s going to be that sort of game, I suspect. Whilst waiting in the line to play Abzû, none other than Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto was ushered in for a demo with his entourage. Compliments probably don’t come much higher for this sort of project. Abzû will be released on Steam on August 2nd.