Thursday, 29 December 2016

On Games 3: Abzu (spoilers)

When The Geek read my review of Hue, he said it was the best review I could have written given that I didn't play the game. Okay then; let's try it with a game I've actually played.

Watching someone play a video game doesn't always spoil it for me. With the right kind of game, watching it played can intensify my desire to play it myself. Journey is one such game. I've seen it livestreamed twice, but the experience it creates, of being a pilgrim in a desert interacting with the ruins of your ancestors' civilization, is so intense and immersive that I want to make that journey myself, with the controller in my own hands, to feel every emotion the game makes its players feel and that I, sitting in the metaphorical backseat, can only get hints of.

Sadly, Journey was a PS3 exclusive, and I don't have access to a PS3. What I do have access to is Abzu, the spritual successor to Journey, developed by Giant Squid and directed by Journey's art director Matt Nava. I first saw it streamed by Paul Saunders of LoadingReadyRun when it came out last August, and immediately knew I had to make this pilgrimage myself. Shoutout to The Geek, who gave it to me for Christmas.

In Abzu, you play as a diver, exploring the ocean, petting fish, and restoring an ecosystem destroyed by war--possibly the same war that turned the city in Journey into a desert. It's divided roughly into thirds: one set in wild ocean, ending deep inside an abandoned war zone; one in a sunken city, now populated by prehistoric fish; and one in what I can best describe as fish heaven. All the settings (except maybe the war zone, for obvious reasons) are absolutely gorgeous, but be prepared for dropped frames when the screen is most packed with fish. Abzu can be completed in about three hours, which makes it the perfect way to spend a quiet afternoon, but you can spend as long as you like exploring and watching the animals.

The primary emotion of the game is wonder at the sheer size of the ocean and the diversity of its fish, mammal, and reptile inhabitants. (I got to ride a manta, and a dolphin, and an elasmosaur!) Wonder easily becomes fear, though, when faced with wide stretches of open ocean, hungry sharks, or underwater minefields. Abzu does a good job of balancing the two over the course of its story; I never felt like things were too tense for too long, and when I got bored with relaxing exploration sections, I could always move on.

Inexperienced as I am with 3D gaming, it took me a while to get used to the controls. You hold one trigger to dive or swim forward, and the other to ride an animal. Left stick changes which way your head is pointing, right stick moves the camera, and buttons let you interact with plot-relevant objects and swim a little faster. (Y-axis movement is set to inverted by default, which The Geek loves but annoyed me until I changed it.) Walking and swimming along the surface of water are controlled completely by the left stick, which threw me off a little late in the game. Overall, I think Abzu is a good place to learn how to use tank controls: you can't die, and while depth perception can be difficult, turning at the wrong time usually gives you an opportunity to see more beautiful fish and kelp, if not an optional collectible.

Speaking of collectibles, Abzu has five types of things you can find, one of which is essential to progress. The essential one is a series of tiny swimming robots that follow you around, shine floodlights into dark areas, and open locked doors. There is at least one in every area you need one to get out of, but it can take some searching in larger areas. The optional collectibles are pretty shells, hidden pools full of trapped sea creatures you can release, schools of fish to make sonar calls at in the auto-scrolling levels, and statues on which you can sit and meditate. Finding all the shells, releasing all the trapped creatures, yelling at fish, and meditating at all the statues each give an achievement, and meditation lets you look at the fish around you, showing annotations about what they are. Just like real meditation, it's an excellent way to relieve tension. The game also has a meditation-only mode, which I look forward to trying out.

My one real complaint is that Abzu has a mild case of something I've heard described as "Video Games Must Have Puzzles Syndrome." The puzzles are generally simple and straightforward, along the lines of "activate two mechanisms in a room to open the door out of the room." And they usually don't interfere with the experience of exploring the ocean and interacting with its inhabitants. But there are two moments where the puzzle-solving did get in the way and felt like it had been added to increase play time. First, while the robot buddies can usually be found near the doors you have to use them on, the last robot buddy was in a cave out of the way in an area that was already difficult to navigate. There's also a puzzle in the second act of the game which had me frantically hunting for a path to one of the mechanisms until I realized that all I had to do was wait for the water level to reach a certain height and then climb out and activate a button that opened a door. It's the only puzzle that makes you wait for a change in water level, instead of quickly showing that change in a cutscene. It was incongruous and confusing.

Those two moments were the only times I felt frustrated with the game. Otherwise, it was smooth sailing to the limit of my ability to maneuver. I made the journey. I felt all the feels. I went to fish heaven with my sharkfriend. And in the end, I felt like I'd accomplished something--like I myself had saved the ocean.

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