This article contains images from across the length of Abzû, showing various areas of the game. No actual "story" spoilers are featured.
It's not uncommon, with the world going to shit on a daily basis, to turn to entertainment for temporary escapism—at least among those of us who can afford televisions, stereos, evenings at the cinema, computers, games consoles and the like. Exploring virtual worlds through video games has long been a way to blow off steam, to find a center, to remove oneself for just an hour or two from the pressures of the everyday. It might be that's with a gun, or twelve; it might be entirely nonviolent, or brain teasing, or every bit as epic of scale as the most bankrolled Hollywood blockbuster. Abzû is none of these things, really, but it's absolutely the game of 2016 that most generously welcomes refugees from the real world.
Abzû, the debut release from Californian studio Giant Squid, is a diving simulator, of sorts: You play, third person, as an unnamed diver, who travels from the shallow waters of crystal seas, through kelp forests down to the deepest depths of the ocean, where hydrothermal vents maintain an ecosystem almost totally alien to the rest of the world. Come the end of this journey—which won't take too long if rushed through, but you'll most likely want to luxuriate in its colors and calm—the player will have seen creatures that no human ever has, and to say any more on the fauna of Abzû is to spoil the discoveries ahead.
What's no spoiler whatsoever is the summarization that, in terms of how Abzû plays, it's essentially a sequel to Journey. The diver solves very simple puzzles, always interacted with via a single-button press, to open gateways through to the next stage, while keeping an eye out for collectible shells and shimmering "portals," which when activated release new species into the already bustling collection of sea life. You'll bring robotic drones back online down here, too, which will zip around you as you swim. And you'll occasionally run into some angry inverted pyramid things that will zap you should you get too close to them, temporarily paralyzing your progress, much like the patrolling guardians of Journey's later stages.
These shocks are only moments when Abzû becomes something other than a becalming meditation, a relaxing distraction, and more like a game in which there is emphasis on the player to actively avoid harm. At all other times you are sharing space with the creatures that call the subaquatic world their own, all the while without worrying about oxygen or your fingertips shriveling up.
The "you" of this experience is a mystery at the very beginning, with some clarity established come the game's second half via vivid murals on ancient ruins. But again without stepping into spoiler territories, there's the definite sense on even a cursory poke around each stage's relics and wildlife—both very much alive and reduced to skeletons—that this isn't quite the Blue Planet we know in the today of 2016. Look to the skies, too, if you get the chance, and peek at what's behind the clouds. Something is definitely fishy, here.
The Journey comparisons will surprise nobody given the team on this game—artist and Giant Squid co-founder Matt Nava worked on thatgamecompany's breakthrough hit of 2012, as did Nick Clark, credited as "advisor" on the studio's website. The music, which is as much of an attraction here as the compelling immersion of the drink itself, comes courtesy of Journey composer Austin Wintory. Its strings and voices surge and swell, recede only to rise once more, never suffocating moments of intimacy and perfectly accompanying set-piece-style occasions—you'll swear that these blue whales are dancing just for you. Abzû has both a concert running time and comparably pleasing rhythm of highs and holds, its soundtrack allowing for natural pauses and periods of reflection, as well as complementing the pure pleasure of leaping from the water with dolphins all around you.
Everything is strictly linear—while each stage is full of murky corners and jellyfish-filled caves to poke around in, flap your flippers too far from where the game needs you to be and a kind of tractor beam emerges from the diver's chest, redirecting them toward the goal. Again, this is the Journey model, but under the sea rather than in the desert. The diver's playful chirps, reciprocated by the drones, are like those of Journey's travelers, and there will be times during this new game where the experienced Journey player will feel that they've seen this all before. Sure, Abzû frames the familiar in beautiful ways, but this isn't a title that challenges how creators approach gentler experiences. That's not a problem, but if you're coming to Abzû wanting to feel a true sense of achievement, you won't get that from it—this is autopilot fare, albeit dressed in the most wonderful way.
Twelve meditation spots are scattered throughout the game—and once active, these can be revisited at any time via the pause and main menus. These allow you to treat Abzû like an interactive aquarium, using the left stick to switch between species, following them as they go about their business totally unmoved by your presence in their territory. (In the main game, you can also grip onto larger creatures and go for a ride.) You'll want to find all of these points, which are shark statues covered in a fine layer of sediment until you blow it away, likewise the coral-surrounded portals and glowing shells. I'm yet to discover them all, so I've no idea what gathering them all does, but it could be akin to Journey's scarf, granting the diver greater speed from the game's beginning.
You'll want to prolong your time under the surface, ticking off the game's slight selection of achievements. But once Abzû's ostensible targets are met, it's hard to see too many people returning to it, unless they really fancy a date with a goblin shark or tomopteris, or want to further explore theories regarding the alien-like tech that's both operational and smashed to pieces throughout the environments. While it lasts, though, this is the most fantastic recession from reality that gaming can offer right now, in advance of No Man's Sky's promised near-infinite discovery.
Abzû isn't totally without conflict, not that you'll ever swing a punch. It's grand of art design but limited of investigable space. It bars progression using locked doors, but cracking them open requires no action beyond following a chain or a cable to the switch or generator in question. As a Journey "sequel," spiritually at least, it misses that game's singularly attractive multiplayer component. In some respects, many indeed, Abzû is not much to recommend at all, neither challenging nor original. But then you play it and realize that it's so much more than any on-paper list of qualities and shortcomings can do justice to.
If you're looking for somewhere to spend a little time, to lift the weight of simply living, to just be for a while without demands or distress, Abzû is a perfect digital destination. It doesn't need to be anything more than what it is: a deep dive into requiescence that lasts just long enough for the outside world to slow to a silent stillness.
Abzû is out now for PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Windows. Find more information at the game's official website.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.