It is a commonly held belief in the gaming community that there are two types of videogame sequels. Sequels that are vastly different than the games that precede them, and sequels that are essentially the same game in a different location, or with different characters, or with some other small changes that are just enough to justify another sixty dollar purchase. I believe on an imaginary scale with these two types of sequels on opposite ends, Absu would fall somewhere in the middle. Far enough from home be its own man , but close enough to call back to mother Journey for an influx of nostalgia sales. That’s right, we have a spiritual successor on our hands.
Developed by: Giant Squid Studios
Published by: 505 Games
Release date: August 2nd, 2016 (PS4/PC), December 6th, 2016 (Xbox One)
Platforms: PS4, PC (Reviewed on PS4)
Price at time of review: $19.99 USD
- Immerse yourself in a vibrant ocean world full of mystery and bursting with color and life.
- Perform fluid acrobatics as the Diver using graceful swimming controls.
- Discover hundreds of unique species based on real creatures and form a powerful connection with the abundant sea life.
- Descend into the heart of the ocean where ancient secrets lie forgotten. But beware, dangers lurk in the depths.
Story and Setting
As with any spiritual successor, I would be remiss if I didn’t start my review with a mention of the game which inspired Abzu, namely the juggernaut that is Journey. Just to refresh everyone’s memory, Journey is ThatGameCompany’s 2012 smash PS3 hit that was the fastest selling game on PSN at that time. Journey received consistently high reviews in mainstream gaming publications, garnering a nine out of ten from GameInformer, IGN, and Wired. This is a game that sticks in the memory of many five years later, and is an early example of a commercially and critically successful “Art Game”. Arguably, Journey is the game that helped spawn the large number of non traditional video games focusing on emotion, music, narrative, and experience over more traditional game mechanics. It certainly wasn’t the first, and personally I don’t think it was the best, but it was the one game that proved non traditional game experiences could be commercially viable. Big shoes for Abzu to fill, if you ask me.
Story is the make or break element of a game that has such minimal gameplay. Even if your environment is beautiful and your atmosphere lovely, man can not live on visuals and mood alone. The story is the true sticking point of Abzu. Much like journey the story is told indirectly as you pass through several different environments. Even at the end you’re not quite sure what exactly has happened, but you have a good general sense and the emotional impact is felt.
Unfortunately for Abzu the story might as well be copy and pasted from journey. It’s different, markedly so, and I really do appreciate this. But even though the story itself is different, the story arc is the same. Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story are very different stories but the story arc is the same. I wish I could say more without spoiling, but please know that it feels more like a dramatic re-imagining than a different story. And that sucks, because it needed to have a distinctly different story in order to distinguish itself from Journey.
Gameplay is unfortunately nearly a carbon copy of Journey, which is a shame in such a wonderful playground. It consists mostly of swimming around and looking at things, as well as chirping at a tiny submarine companion. The things are beautiful and interesting to look at and the tiny submarine is adorable, but aside from a few small puzzles, the only real challenge in the game is hiding from things that are larger than you. The game does a good job of making these moments legitimately tense, but I can’t help but feel I’ve done the same thing before in journey. There are also some segments in which you must navigate around depth mines in order to (power on generaters?, open doors?, eat a special underwater plant? Frankly I can’t remember because it feels very standard and generic) in order to progress, but the challenge is minimal. It is worth noting these depth mines are used later in the story much more effectively. I won’t spoil anything, but if you know the very general plot of Journey, you can pretty well guess how Abzu is going to go.
Visual & Audio
Although made by Giant Squid rather than ThatGameCompany, Abzu’s artistic director is Matt Nava, art director of both of ThatGameCompany games, Journey and Flower. Let me make one thing clear right off the bat. Matt’s brilliant art direction is evident throughout the entirety of Abzu. Set in an octopus’s garden under the sea (a far departure from the shifting desert of Journey) Abzu immediately attempts to forge its own path by injecting a unique element to Journey’s formula: a living, moving, flowing ecosystem. Throughout the game I was constantly enthralled with the live world around me. Whether it was a sluggish sea turtle lumbering overhead, or a small school of fish below me in the seaweed being eyed by a hungry predator, I could feel the ecosystem around me, even when I wasn’t directly looking at it.
Abzu knows this ecosystem is one of it’s biggest features, and the game even offers you the opportunity to pause the story at some points and zoom in on the underwater kingdom around you with a game pause state called “Meditation mode”. Meditation mode allows you to follow the creature of your choosing. You’ll see them lazily meandering around the sunny shallows, swimming in and out of seaweed, or, if you’re lucky, watch undersea predation up close (for a PSN achievement , no less). Meditation mode reminds me very much of the moments of calm from Life is Strange. Take as much or as little time as you’d like to view the world around you, breathe, and reflect on the experience so far. The soundtrack is excellent at helping you buy into the emotional exploration you’ll experience alongside your character’s underwater exploration.