I somehow skipped out on playing ABZU when it launched back in 2016. And then the game was made available for free on PlayStation 4 through PS Plus and I still didn’t play it, despite downloading it right away. I just didn’t make the time for it; I had other games I was playing at the time.
Fast forward to 2018 and ABZU has made its way to Nintendo Switch. So now that I’ve finally had the chance to sit down and play through this underwater journey, what do I think? Well, let’s just say I played through the entire game in one sitting.
Submerged in Narrative
Despite the lack of any sort of dialogue, ABZU has a beautiful narrative throughout its brief, three-hour story. I won’t go too deep into it because I want you to experience it for yourself. It’s minimal, but definitely there for those of you who want it. It’s told through music, the visuals, animation, and the way the characters interact.
The best way to put it is that this game is an experience. The game wants you to feel something emotional as you progress. It’s a deeply relaxing experience punctuated by moments of surprise, joy, and even fear. I would argue that the best way to experience ABZU is in one sitting, although it’s not wrong to do it in multiple.
You’re an unnamed diver, dressed in black and yellow, beginning your journey submerged under the sea. You come into contact with all sorts of sea creatures, including dolphins, manta rays, and squid. There’s a mystery at the heart of this game and it’s your job to swim to the heart of it.
Sink or Swim
The gameplay in ABZU is barebones, but that suits the game perfectly. I was thrown off in the beginning due to inverted controls. Thankfully, I was able to immediately change them to normal.
There’s a button that lets you swim, one that makes you swim faster, and one that lets you interact with the environment. You can also ride a variety of bigger sea creatures if you get close enough to them (physically, this isn’t a dating simulator).
Pressing up or down on the control stick will have the diver face up or down, in a full circle of motion. This had me caught off guard for a little but I was able to figure it out quickly. You pick your direction and swim towards it at varying speeds. The way you move the camera deeply affects the whole experience. Twitchy, sudden movements disrupt the whole thing so I made sure to slowly pan and sweep around the diver. This gives a more cinematic feel, which builds the emotional appeal of the game.
As you explore the underwater world, you come into contact with a variety of fish you can ride. Get up next to the creature of choice and hold a button to grab on to it. You can steer the fish like you would the diver, but with less control. It’s a neat feature that isn’t necessary to finish the game but does contribute to the atmosphere. I have to say that riding a squid is something I didn’t know I wanted until I played ABZU.
There are statues scattered in the game that let you “meditate.” The diver will sit on these when you interact with them and turn your console into a mini aquarium feed. You can pick sea creatures to focus on and let the camera follow them as they swim around the environment. It’s a neat little feature that can serve almost like a screensaver when you’re not playing the game. You can do this in handheld mode as well, which means you can leave your Switch on in random places. It’s nothing revolutionary but it doesn’t need to be. It adds to the relaxing quality of this game.
There aren’t really puzzles you’re supposed to complete. ABZU expects you to explore, more than anything. There are definitely some challenges while playing but, again, this game is more about making you feel something. So don’t worry about difficulty or anything like that, just enjoy this as much as you can while you play.
ABZU is also a linear experience and doesn’t really emphasize open exploration. There are several moments where the game even feels on rails, but it’s purposeful and beneficial to the game. You main get little areas to explore before moving on to the next one.
ABZU’s visual style is simple, yet vibrant and captivating. The use of color is what caught my attention the most. The whole environment will take on a particular palette depending on the mood the developers are going for. You’ll get light blues in the more peaceful areas while green and yellow will pop up more in the exciting (while still soothing) areas. Red is used any time there’s suspense or danger, and, well, you get the idea.
Don’t go into this game looking for the best graphics in the industry. The graphical quality isn’t the highest but the sort of blocky feel is there. It was definitely intentional in the creation of the game, so it wasn’t offputting. The biggest problem I ran into was some slight chugging in the framerate. This happened mostly while I played on the TV. It wasn’t terrible but there were times it was a bit noticeable.
The game does a good job of filling environments with interesting plants and sea creatures. There were some times where it felt a bit sparse but they were few. For the most part, there’s always something interesting to focus on. Schools of fish are some of my favorite spectacles; it’s really fun to swim up and have them encircle you.
Austin Wintory is back for another original game soundtrack. His signature strings build the mood for the majority of the game. There are some gorgeous melodies to be found here. I wouldn’t say the music is set on making you remember tunes like other games. This soundtrack functions as a guide for what you feel while you play. It really does seem like the soundtrack is built around what you’re doing and where you’re swimming. It always came in at just the right time and was absent when it needed to be. It’s implemented perfectly and I even recommend downloading the soundtrack separately to listen when you’re not playing ABZU.
Besides the music, sound design does what it needs to. There are some interesting sounds as well, beyond the standard sea noises you’d expect. The ambient sounds used in the game blend nicely with the music when necessary. Everything is built to soothe you, when it isn’t trying to surprise or even scare you. I’m not saying this is a horror game but there was one “jump scare” that had me startled.
Hook, Line, and Sinker
ABZU is an amazing, self-contained experience with really minimal performance issues on Nintendo Switch. There’s not really anything to dislike about this game, which is a worse way of saying that ABZU is a phenomenal experience that I would recommend to anyone. It doesn’t matter what platform you play it on, just play it.
This review of ABZU is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game.
You should definitely pick up ABZU for your Nintendo Switch when you have the chance due to the great soundtrack, visuals, and overall aesthetic. The game is approximately three to four hours long but the experience is so pure and soothing that you won't mind the shortness.
Word player, note manipulator, and logic breaker. My favorite game is The Last of Us. I’ll argue with you about it all day. Try me. “To the edge of the universe and back, endure and survive…”