ABZÛ is a difficult game to explain. It’s a swimming simulator with a minimalist touch, from the story all the way down to the simple controls. I really mean minimal, as there’s no dialogue and most of the narrative can be interpreted differently depending on your point of view. I’m aware that I may have lost a lot of you already, but for the rest, stay a while and listen.
I love that ABZÛ just plops you into the vast expanse of the sea and basically says, “Have at it.” With just several button prompts—for diving, boosting, riding animals, and scanning objects—the tutorial takes mere seconds, offering very little direction as to what to do or how you do it. That’s fine, because it isn’t terribly difficult to figure out where to go and there are no stakes involved, no deaths, no continue system, and now way to get lost. There’s a few traditional gaming elements like collectibles, but for the most part it’s an esoteric “at your own pace” affair, a Zen-like project through and through.
That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have variety, however. Even for a smaller bite-sized indie release the presentation is immaculate. The player character looks distinct, especially when exploring new zones where different types of lighting refract off of the model, changing your colour scheme, That goes double for the fish and creatures that feature in the game’s zones, and on more than one occasion I had to get close just to inspect them. A beautiful and booming score complements the art.
However, the notion of accessibility is taken to extremes at times. “Puzzles” usually consist of following a straight line and initiating a generator of some sort that allows you to access the next area or swimming up to the very obvious key object to cue a cutscene, after which you’ll repeat the process. There’s a fine line between making something easy to comprehend and making it a bit too easy in general, and ABZÛ uncomfortably careens across that line, even in some of the late-game areas.
I’m actually fine with the lack of a death mechanic or traditional “enemies,” but the game could have used some sort of crescendo when it comes to the puzzle designs later on in the journey. I think even the most casual of fans will come away disappointed by some of the solutions, and just as the game starts showing potential, it’s over in just several hours.
In the end I don’t even know if I’d necessarily recommend ABZÛ even if I did enjoy it. It’s one of those games where you have to list a ton of caveats off when discussing, to the point where many people will be turned off. But if you regularly partake in walking (swimming?) simulators and artistic endeavors merely for aesthetic value, it might be worth the…ahem…dive.