Underwater levels in games can make you flounder. Weird water physics, breath timers, and clunky character movements have historically made submerged worlds daunting. But Giant Squid's subaquatic adventure Abzu takes all that away, turning even the clumsiest of player inputs into the graceful movements of an aqua-dancer. It's an effortless, relaxing adventure that makes you feel totally at home in its aquatic world.
Abzu is a wordless story set within the depths of the ocean. You play as a diver who's helping restore life back to parts of the sea that are decaying. As you delve deeper, you'll begin to unravel the mysteries of an ancient civilisation and start to understand the diver's origins. The game has moments of quiet reflection, rushes of action, and playful interactions that use its underwater world to great effect.
The way you control the diver comes completely naturally as you start playing. Their movements are amazingly fluid, gracefully gliding through the water, elegantly twisting and turning to match the player's input. Any game that can turn my awkward and erratic inputs into a delicate ballet performance is something to treasure. This smooth movement not only makes it easier to navigate the space, it also creates a strong connection between the gliding of the diver and the ecosystem around you.
Stop and smell the kelp
Every corner of Abzu is bursting with life. There are some beautifully artful sequences, like being swept away by a school of bustling fish, playfully swimming with a pod of dolphins, or effortlessly gliding next to an enormous blue whale. But there are also moments where you're free to explore on your own, allowing you to stop and absorb the ecology.
‘Meditation rocks' have been placed in the game's aesthetic sweet spots, letting you get an eyeful of its beautiful environments. Abzu is unusual in that it directly invites you to sit down calmly and just watch the activity around you. You're not treated as an enemy or outsider, you can sit on these rocks as long as you like—it's a welcoming gesture. Being swept through a beautiful environment is thrilling, but it's only when you stop and look around that you begin to see that the bustling ecosystem has a life of its own.
The fish and plants in Abzu have all been programmed to follow sets of procedural rules that make them as life-like as possible. The world has vibrant energy because it's in a constant state of movement. The way the fish look, move, and interact is how they would in real marine ecosystem environments, making them captivating to watch. There are hundreds of different species to gaze at, each one having its own set of rules to follow. Abzu's world actually feels like it's a full simulation of a real-life ecosystem, contained on your screen.
This thriving underwater community completely embraces you as every fish and plant directly responds to your movements. Trees of kelp will sway in reaction to you gliding through, and if you rush past a school of fish they'll disperse in a flurry of colour. Dolphins, manta rays, whale sharks, manatees, jellyfish, and more besides will interact with you in different ways. There's a sense you're directly influencing the world around you, and a strong connection is built.
This underwater empire makes you feel like you're a part of its world. It's the story of a diver discovering where they came from, but instead of telling us with words, Abzu makes you feel like you belong. It transports you to one of the few wild and mysterious places left on this planet, and embraces its strange and wonderful nature. You're not treated as a tourist but as part of its world—and for a little while, you feel at one with the ocean.