ABZÛ is the aquatic brainchild of Journey art director Matt Nava and it wears its pedigree on its sleeve. It is an underwater adventure game with a heavy emphasis on free-form exploration that tasks players with uncovering the secrets of the ocean, releasing its deep-diving hero into an ominous aquatic world with zero explanation. ABZÛ is cryptic, ambiguous – and undeniably elegant. After spending a solid fifteen minutes with the game at this year’s E3, I am surprised that this little indie gem isn’t accruing the buzz it so pressingly deserves. It proves the significance of Nava’s contribution & to Journey, and seems poised to serve as a fitting spiritual successor to Thatgamecompany‘s 2012 classic.
Let’s – pardon the pun – dive right in.
Mechanically, the game echoes Journey – the player is limited to only a couple of actions and the emphasis seems to be on navigation and motion rather than environmental manipulation. The game simply flows. Swimming with schools of fish, for example, allows the player to accelerate, akin to catching a slipstream behind an opponent in a racing game. Additionally, the player can hitch a ride on passing creatures – like whales and turtles – by grabbing on. The player can also emit a sonar ping, which scares away smaller fish while calling drone-like assistants to help the player navigate the world, both by collecting resources and clearing sand to open up new areas. ABZU controls like a dream. The player character swims through the water effortlessly, gliding in perfect arcs across the gorgeously appointed environment.
From a gameplay perspective, ABZÛ seems almost entirely explorative, though the demo teased some narrative depth, cryptic as it was. An upside down triangle – represented on the main characters back – seems to be a recurring theme in the environment. Throughout the demo, I discovered a number of mysterious beams of light emanating from both the surface and the ocean floor, as well as a hidden area with a distinct art style. What could these possibly mean? The demo stirred up quite a bit of intrigue but remained stubbornly short on answers.
Aesthetically, ABZÛ is absolutely delightful. The art is gorgeous – evocative of Nava’s work on Journey but singular in its vision of oceanic mystery. The game’s score, provided by Journey composer Austin Wintory, complements the game’s atmospheric mystique. The 15 minutes I spent with ABZÛ provided a much-needed repose from the chaos of E3’s show floor; I can only imagine getting lost in the full game’s peaceful environment for hours on end from the comfort of my living room.
ABZÛ will be available for Playstation 4 and PC on Aug. 2, 2016.