Giant Squid was founded by Matt Nava who left thatgamecompany following their completion of Journey. After serving as the art director for the studio’s last two projects, Nava’s goal was to found a new studio, taking the idea of an emotional exploration game to a more lush and colorful setting. From that line of thought, Abzû was born. Putting you in the flippers of a lone scuba diver, Nava plans to take players on a voyage through a living, breathing ocean environment. It’s certainly a gorgeous game, but can Abzû live up to the legacy Journey has built within the genre?
From the ancient Sumerian language, Abzû is loosely translated to “ocean of wisdom,” perfectly setting the stage for an underwater adventure. After donning headphones to drown out the noise of a crowded PAX show floor, I was immediately transported to a serene vista at the surface of the ocean, completely devoid of distractions. With a subtle prompt, Abzû encouraged me to take the plunge into the water, which immediately reveals a liveliness and energy absent above the waves.
As I began to move around underneath the surface, environmental clues served as my guide through the solo expedition. Moving from the game’s first area through a crevice into the second area brought me into something akin to an undersea meadow, a gorgeous and colorful opening brimming with schools of fish, sea turtles, and lush plant life. After a few minutes of swimming among the various schools and riding along the back of a sea turtle, a beacon on the ocean floor caught my eye. Swimming down revealed a small machine half buried in the sand. With a quick pulse of my sonar, the peppy yellow robot sprung to life and began scanning the area at my direction.
Not knowing what to look for exactly, I guided the robot around with my sonar pulse, scanning various fish and plants before noticing a puddle on the seafloor. Thinking that a puddle probably should be forming underwater, my robot companion and I headed down to investigate. When I triggered a sonar pulse at the puddle, the robot sprung two hoses from its sides, injected them into the puddle, and drained it. From there, we repeated the process on a few others before one revealed a second robot, leading me into the demo’s next area, a cavern teeming with jellyfish and an ominous rock formation warning me of what lay ahead.
The game’s lone jump scare came after the jellyfish cavern. After the ten minutes or so of serene exploration it was preceded by, it’s very effective. As the shark swooped in from below and took away one of my two robot pals in front of my eyes, I quickly got disoriented and separated from the other robot. A minute or two later, I remembered the sonar pulse and was able to locate my remaining robot and proceed ahead.
At this point, out of curiosity, I decided to resurface, which is a stark reminder that above the water lies an entirely different world. After my run-in with the shark, the game had built up a sense of tension that wasn’t there before. All of that faded away once my head was back above water. With the quiet sounds of the waves in my headphones, birds calling out in the distance, and a light cloud cover above, there was an overwhelming feeling of serenity. Mentally recharged, I proceeded through to the demo’s climax before removing my headphones, quickly reminded of the noisy and crowded environment I was actually standing in.
On a crowded PAX show floor, Abzû did something that most game demos aren’t able to. It transported me into a new environment, keeping my undivided attention through the entire 20-25 minute demo. Its gorgeous art style and emotional score absolutely captivated me.
In an interview with VentureBeat, Matt Nava said that “[t]he goal is to create an experience that’s lasting and meaningful for players. We want to give them a world they can explore and keep coming back to and enjoy. That’s something I learned when I was working at thatgamecompany. Games can do something like that, and that’s what I want to keep doing with games.”
On that front, Abzû seems primed to achieve its lofty ambitions and then some.