Giant Squid’s Abzû comes to the Nintendo Switch, but does it sink or swim?
Matt Nava’s Abzû was originally released on PC and console two years ago, and recently resurfaced on Nintendo Switch at a time when the console is drowning in ports, remakes, and remasters.
Released slap-bang between Pokémon Let’s Go, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, there’s a chance that the game could be overlooked. It really shouldn’t be.
After spending a few months swinging through the skyscrapers of New York looking for backpacks, and foraging through endless lock-boxes hunting for gun oil, it’s something of a relief to play a game that is designed to offer the player a simple, affecting experience, with a clear message at its heart.
Abzû is an underwater exploration game in which you must navigate a series of ocean regions, solve simple lock-and-key puzzles, and discover an array of marine animals. On the surface it sounds pretty basic, but beneath its simple structure lies a game of considerable depth and beauty.
Abzû has often been compared to Thatgamecompany’s Journey – on which Nava worked as an artist – but its construction, message, and execution make it a closer bedfellow with the studio’s 2009 predecessor, Flower.
Like that game, Abzû aims to show you the wonder and majesty of the natural world – albeit with a slight science-fiction bent – before reminding you of how fragile it is.
And Abzû’s world is indeed wonderful: a glorious cascade of light and colour, of darkness and danger. Despite its bold, clean, almost polygonal visuals, it feels expansive, mysterious, unknown, and unknowable.
Whereas Journey and Flower both provoked feelings of solitude, Abzû creates a world in which you are alone, but not lonely. Each area teems with wildlife, large and small, familiar and bizarre. Much of it can be studied and identified, and there’s a never-ending pleasure in watching the unique behaviours of each species.
It will come as little surprise that one of the game’s standout moments – and one that will live long in my memory – features the sudden, and exhilarating appearance of a school of whales. The screen capture button of my Switch has never been so busy.
Movement – so often the bane of water-based video games – is, for the most part, sublime. Its roots lie in Super Mario 64’s underwater move-set, but with propulsion tied to the right trigger, and twenty years of development knowhow adding grace and precision to each manoeuvre. There are occasional hiccups, but in a game that allows for full 360-degree movement, it’s a masterclass of control and camera design.
In certain areas you can slow the game to a halt, and activate a meditation mode. Here, the camera changes to a cinematic view, and focuses on the various species that swim about you. With headphones on, it’s hard to not give in, and let your mind drift among the undercurrents. I mean it as the highest compliment when I say that Abzû very nearly put me into a deep, blissful slumber.
In part this is due to the excellent sound design. The muffled ocean ambience compliments the visuals and enhances the sense of depth and otherworldliness. Austin Wintory’s score also plays its part, receding into the background to give the player space, but also supplying dramatic, awe-inspiring heft at the right moments.
It’s hard to comment on the technical quality of the Nintendo Switch port, other than to say I was impressed. There were a few occasional frame stutters in TV mode, but these only occurred during some of the more graphically intense scenes, or when I was giving the camera a deliberate workout. Abzû also looks delightful in handheld mode, losing little of its splendour on the Switch’s 6.2-inch screen.
Abzû is a short game, but not one to be rushed. It continually rewards the player with interesting new sights to see, creatures to discover, and moments to savour. A swift replay is encouraged by its design, and desired by my appetite to catalogue every species.
Abzû’s overarching environmental message is not subtle, but nor should it be. Despite its science fiction leanings, the game is a reminder that the natural world around and beneath us, here and now, is one to be treasured.