[Auth note: I'm far too lazy to figure out how to type the u with the little ^ over it, so all you pedants, you're just gonna have to suffer, or go read the New Yorker.]
Much of Abzu is entirely my jam.
I love, with as many capital letters as I can muster without crashing this site, just exploring areas that have giant architecture. Sometimes I'll walk around my city and see public artworks, large buildings looming over the rest, and imagine the feeling of how I'd be if this was years in the future, after mankind's gone, and nature has started taking over. These gigantic, abandoned facilities, within them artifacts from a time and people long gone, in a language I might not understand. These are monuments to a purpose I'll never understand, mysteries to be unravelled and plucked at but never fully solved! Games like Kairo, The Witness, even stuff like parts of The Beginner's Guide or little-played art game At A Distance (which I wrote about years ago! But don't read that because it's terrible!) scratch that itch so perfectly. In fact it's the thing I'm most excited about VR for – give me an unknown edifice in the distance and let me go explore it!
And Abzu doubles down on it by making it underwater, so you're not just exploring old-ass monumental temples, you're also hanging out with wonderful underwater critters that are just sort of bopping around you. It's meant to be a peaceful journey, so you're never in danger of a jellyfish stinging you, a shark deciding that you look particularly delicious to munch on, and you can easily go through it with no problems.
That's the other thing: fish and underwater stuff are incredibly awesome. There may not be any octopuses (!?) but the range and variety of the critters as they're scattered around are very impressive – it's even highlighted in special meditation statues scattered around and you can flip from fish to fish and go "hmmm spotted gourami" and really just enjoy the peaceful feeling that comes with being underwater.
Because water's great, right? Being in water, a pool, the ocean, even just going to an aquarium is really just the best thing. Scuba diving, snorkeling, just seeing these scads of creatures darting around together, oblivious to and uncaring about your presence. It's comforting and relaxing. And it's really the part that Abzu shines the most in because it feels like it was made by people who super love the ocean and the little things that swim in it.
So water levels are usually most people's least favorites, and setting an entire game underwater could have been quite risky, but the controls on your character are actually pretty great. Graceful is the best word for it, really. It animates beautifully, and in fact the only times I had an issue with controlling it was because I expected the controls to be a lot worse, honestly. When was the last time you played a game that took place in any way underwater and thought "this is fine"? But it actually is fine in this case – it feels great and there's never a problem as you explore around and take a look at things. Maybe it helps that unlike, say, Down the Tubes in Earthworm Jim, there's no punishment and no precision needed. Even if you bump into a wall, it doesn't matter – you pop right off, and on your way.
But if so much of it is so great, and so much of it is totally my jam, why do I walk away from Abzu feeling little more than a shrug? Because the journey itself really didn't do much for me.
Oh I haven't played Journey, by the way, so everyone's been comparing these two, but like... I dunno.
I reached the end of the game and... it ended. And I understood that I'd gone through something, sure. I went from point A to point B! I saw the sights along the way! I returned life to lush, gorgeous world that was apparently supposed to maybe read as dying and... killed by technology or something? It was all so vague, it was really a bit difficult to pin down what it really was that happening here. I'm not really asking for, like, a YouTube video doing the whole "THE ENDING OF ABZU: EXPLAINED!" bit. But the context for what I was trying to do, who I was, what was up with the shark knowing things, I didn't really see it; and it honestly might be that I'm stupid, but without any context it does make the whole journey feel a little empty.
Yet it's also filled with so many amazingly beautiful moments, which I won't name here since honestly the moments are all that matter in this game. And they're spectacular when they happen, Austin Wintory's incredible music just underscoring the grandeur of the world you're seeing. But where the moments are strong on their own, strung together they don't really add up to much. It's beautiful, but in the end it also feels surprisingly empty.
It's a lovely voyage to nowhere. A road trip where the final destination is a shrug and a great white shark.
Sometimes, nowhere is exactly where you need to go, of course. But for the way this game built up, finding myself nowhere was a let down. Imagine if you were on a journey fraught with danger and adventure and lessons learned, loved ones gained and lost, where you underwent a spiritual change... and then you wound up in Muncie, Indiana. That's about what this felt like.
For me, Abzu came off as beautiful, but empty. And while it certainly had parts I loved and would revisit, its entirety as a package was overall lacking. I wish there was more, or maybe something that I could have latched onto more, but instead I finished the game and walked away and the only part that still has me thinking about it is the fact that I need to write this review. For all its beauty, there's not much to really discover along the way.