Translated roughly from ancient Sumerian, Abzu means “ocean of wisdom.” I’m not sure if I feel much wiser having played through this bizarre simulation game, but I did walk away from it feeling calmer and a little more pensive than when I sat down. Abzu is hardly even a video game in the traditional sense, but it’s a heck of an experience. Whether it’s worth the $20 is another matter — especially since the gameplay can be rather shallow for a game that takes you to the ocean’s most profound depths.
In Abzu, players take on the role of a diver who travels deeper and deeper into the ocean as he/she/it explores an ancient archeological mystery. There’s really not much to the gameplay: You can swim in whatever direction you choose, and boost your speed with aptly timed button presses. A handful of items litter the sea floor, which means you’ll have to solve a few (very) simple puzzles to progress at various points.
Swimming generally feels fine, although the camera can be uncooperative when you need to ascend or descend in a straight line. Where you need to go is usually clear, which is something of a triumph, considering the immensity and variety of most stages. Abzu is a game that revels in three-dimensional level design, and looking out across a deep chasm can be intimidating once you realize that your only option is to explore it.
For completionists, there are a few doodads to collect or weird things to see in hidden corners of the stages, but it’s very possible to take a straight-line approach and just follow the game’s poetic arc. (“Narrative arc” would be a bit of a stretch, although it has a definite beginning, middle and end.)
Given its extremely simple gameplay, short playtime (about two hours, although you could probably double that by exploring every nook and cranny) and abstruse storyline, I’m hesitant to discuss Abzu in too much detail, lest I spoil its appeal. There is indeed some kind of story, or at least a setting, however, which is worth discussing.
Abzu is a game that resists easy interpretation, but I can at least say this much: You play as a diver whose identity is (somewhat) revealed as you explore the ocean’s mysteries. The ancient Sumerian vibe is very much at play, both in the architecture you encounter and the tidbits of plot you pick up along the way, mostly told in hieroglyphic-style wall carvings.
The most important part of the game, however, is arguably neither the thematic story nor the nuanced exploration, but rather, the sea creatures you encounter along the way. Each creature is gorgeous and distinctive, and swimming alongside each one is an incredibly different experience. To say much more would be telling, but you will encounter giant grouper, great white sharks, orca whales, colossal squid and more. Swimming with whales, especially, gives an incredible sense of scale, and provides some of the game’s most moving moments.
I walked away from Abzu feeling deeply relaxed and almost hypnotized by the game’s transcendent beauty. Once the initial haze wore off, though, it was hard to shake the feeling that I didn’t actually do much.
Abzu is rich in detail, but lacking in challenge. Aside from a few simple digressions, the path forward is always clear, and nothing really stands in your way, aside from your own proclivity for exploration. Without significant rewards for treading off the beaten path, I didn’t find much reason to do it. The plot definitely provides some meaty food to digest, but it’s more like a Zen riddle than a puzzle: something you can ponder, but never solve.
At the very least, I can say that Abzu is a game that resists easy interpretation, and as such, a score seems superfluous. As a game, it’s a tough sell; as an ambitious narrative experience, it has more merit. Twenty dollars is admittedly a high asking price, and I don’t think it’s a good investment for everyone — it’s definitely not a “safe” investment, if you’re looking for something you’re guaranteed to like.
If slow-paced games with gorgeous graphics and abstract plots are your thing, Abzu is at least worth thinking about. Perhaps you should ponder it during a trip to the aquarium.