Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Giant Squid
Release Date: Nov. 29, 2018

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Switch Review - 'Abzu'

by Andreas Salmen on May 29, 2019 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Abzû is an underwater experience that evokes the dream of diving where you will be immersed in a vibrant ocean world full of mystery and bursting with color and life.

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Some video games focus on storytelling, some focus on gameplay, and others are somewhere in between. However, Abzu doesn't fit on that scale. It's what some people would call a walking (or swimming) simulator, given its very simple gameplay loop that consists of moving forward and performing simple actions to progress. It isn't story-driven in the conventional way. It's best compared to the likes of 2012's PlayStation-exclusive Journey, which proved that a story and emotions can be conveyed with very little input for or from the player.

Since Abzu was developed by several people who also worked on Journey, it should come as no surprise that Abzu offers a similar audio-visual experience that lets us explore the depths of the sea. While it was originally released on the PC and other platforms as early as 2016, Abzu is now available on the Nintendo Switch, adding portability to the immersive experience.

In Abzu, we control an unnamed silent diver on the surface of the sea. Without any context, we're introduced to basic movement controls that allow us to dive and swim, go faster for a short time, or interact with our surroundings. It's not complicated or challenging in any way, but it's as smooth as any underwater game I've played to date. It's tough to remember a game where underwater traversal has been this pleasant and natural. Water-based levels in video games are often frustrating and difficult to control, but Abzu makes it easy to dive through colorful ocean floors, so the controls quickly become second nature.

Abzu mainly consists of explorative gameplay. We progress through a variety of open spaces, one by one in a linear fashion. Within each level, we can move as we please, and we can take as much time as needed to explore the ins and outs of each area. As we progress, we may find little robots to take with us, and little statues where we can observe different kinds of fish or collectibles. We may swim through schools of colorful fish or catch a ride on a larger sea creature. Overall, the game doesn't obstruct the way you'd like to play, and everything naturally flows together.

The only times we may need to complete a task to progress is by finding little robots to open overgrown passages or activate levers that may open a door. It's enough to divert the player from taking a direct path through a level, but it's not remotely challenging. At times, it feels like a simplistic diving simulator, which wouldn't be of interest to everyone. It is Abzu's other qualities that elevate the experience from average to excellent — mainly its atmosphere and subtle environmental storytelling.

Abzu's art style is colorful but simplistic in its polygon count. At the same time, models are incredibly detailed, given their simple nature. From fish to whales to sharks, your encounters with some of the biggest underwater creatures are the most memorable thanks to Abzu's very good sense of scale. It knows how to create atmosphere from its simple patterns and designs. Swimming through a dense "forest" of sea plants to come face to face with a large sea creature is astonishing and breathtaking in the way it's constructed and executed. Swimming with swarms of fish in ridiculously fast water currents and jumping through the air with a pack of whales is equally exhilarating. We'll also swim through plenty of quiet caves and underground structures as we take in the scenery and try to find our way around.

The game has its pacing down. Slow and claustrophobic moments are followed by vast areas with an upbeat feel, which are followed by speedy water currents and then some calm exploration. It does a good job of constructing a journey that is devoid of complexity, but the environments and gameplay are incredibly varied. That alone isn't what makes it special, though. Throughout the game, we'll find and explore architecture that was clearly left by an intelligent species that met its inevitable doom. As we progress, we are able to follow their fate through structures and paintings on brittle underwater walls. Don't expect an elaborate story, but it works well given the overall gameplay premise. Like the rest of the game, the visual details make the world believable and immersive to the point of being soothing and transcendent.

A big part of that is the orchestral soundtrack, which not only matches the mood of the environments but also adapts to our actual gameplay. As a whole package, the audio and atmosphere create a strong and captivating experience. One can get easily lost in the game, especially when playing on the Switch in handheld mode and with the use of headphones. At times, it can feel like we've been transferred underwater into the oceans of Abzu, which is the highest praise a game of its caliber could possibly receive. If you prefer to play on the TV, that works just as well — as long as you have a very long AUX cable. Otherwise, you may miss out on the finer nuances of the excellent musical score, which is best enjoyed with headphones.

Regardless of how you chose to play, the Switch version of Abzu runs great. Visual fidelity is high, and the frame rate is smooth at all times, which is important in a title that bases so much of its experience on visuals. The value of the experience is quite difficult to put into words, especially given its short run time. Abzu can be completed in about three hours, with a few extra minutes here and there if you take your time. With a $20 price tag, that isn't too outrageous but may end up being a tough sell for some. If you value atmosphere and experience, there is arguably no better title than Abzu, especially if you played and enjoyed Journey, which was a similarly short but sweet experience.

When considering the sum of its parts, Abzu is a masterfully crafted experience from start to finish. It's a beautiful re-creation of the underwater ecosystem, from big predators to schools of colorful fish. Add to that the mystery of exploring an unknown civilization and a musical score that is beyond captivating, and you are in for a treat for all of your senses. It's not for everyone, but if you let it, Abzu may captivate you.

Score: 8.8/10

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