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review

‘Abzu’ game creator goes underwater for his latest adventure

"Abzu" creates an ethereal undersea odyssey for players to explore.

505 GAMES

By CHRISTOPHER BYRD | Special to The Washington Post | Published: August 12, 2016

“Abzu” draws liberally from the motifs of Matt Nava’s “Flower” and “Journey.” Similar to “Flower,” it is a hymn to ecology, to bringing things into a more vibrant state of being. And like “Journey,” it gives the sense of a spiritual pilgrimage amongst consecrated spaces. In fact, the word “abzu” traces its origin back to the ancient people of Sumer — the earliest known urban dwellers — who believed that the abzu were the primal waters between earth and the underworld.

As with a fugue, where the themes of a musical piece are sketched in its opening bars, the introduction to “Abzu” carries overtones of later events. The game opens with a shot of luminous water. After skimming above it for a moment, the camera plunges beneath the surface of the ocean. In the blue-ish light, schools of fish pass by. As the camera descends, the light grows fainter. Jellyfish appear like backyard lanterns pushing against the darkness that eventually rushes in as the camera maintains its descent. The darkness transforms into something like that of an inky star-filled sky. Into this space opens a pink-accented portal. The camera then cuts to a diver floating on the surface of the crisp blue water. On the back of her suit there is the outline of an inverted triangle.

Pressing the right trigger of the controller sends you burrowing under the water. By default, pushing up on the left control stick will tilt the diver’s swimming trajectory down, while pulling back on the control stick tilts her up. The camera, which is mapped to the right control stick, follows suit. I found the controls a tad awkward until I made some tweaks in the menus. I settled on leaving the y-axis of the diver’s movements as it was, while reversing the y-axis of the camera. That little change made the game much more playable for me, which is evidence that it’s usually worth messing around in the menus.

Most of the game is spent ogling the many different species of fish you encounter across environments that change like the seasons. Flat, emerald-looking plants give way to those lit with the colors of autumn. In your travels, you’ll see the submerged structures of an ancient civilization. Milestones in your quest are marked by swimming through different portals that eject you into an ethereal underwater chamber where you’ll leave a piece of yourself — a ball of light you produce from your body — that revitalizes the surrounding areas, infusing robust life where there wasn’t any. This sort of mechanic will be familiar to anyone who has played “Flower,” as will some of the game’s most exhilarating scenes, where you’re swept up in currents that remind one of “Flower’s” wind tunnels.

Speaking of being swept up, there is something soothing about swimming in a shoal of fish or catching a ride on one of the bigger specimens. Still, for all of their colorful flair, the visuals in the game are occasionally uneven — some of the underwater flora looks like set dressing. Furthermore, while I appreciate how the game draws a visual analog between the mysteries of the ocean and those of the space, its underlying narrative about an otherworldly caretaker didn’t make as deep an impression on me as “Journey” — which I believe has a more varied set of emotional beats.

Since I first completed “Abzu,” I’ve dipped into it a couple of times. It’s nothing if not a relaxing game, though it might be atmospheric to a fault. In the best sense, it’s a game for tourists more than travelers.

 

Official website: abzugame.com

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