Image: Giant Squid Studios

There’s a famous scene in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off where the movie’s trio of poor little rich kids spend the afternoon in Chicago’s Art Institute. Cameron, a fussy neurotic, becomes hypnotized by Seurat’s famous pointillist painting, A Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of La Grande Jatte. The longer he stares, the closer the camera zooms in to the point where every individual dot of paint that composes the piece can be seen. Giant Squid’s Abzû is an animated pointillist painting; a brief but compact work of art that presents a teeming underwater world and gives you the freedom to swim above everything to see a rhythmic collage of color swirl below you, then dive into the center of it to observe each individual petal on an iridescent sea flower.

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Abzû is the most recent entry in the type of game that, for a lack of a better term, can be called restorative adventure. Similar to Flower and Journey before it, Abzû places you in the role of a nameless wanderer, deputized with remedying some unspecified past ecological disaster. There is little conflict to speak of, and the focus is placed instead on exploration and simply experiencing the world. Restorative Adventure tends to focus on one kind of environment, like grassland or desert. Abzû takes place entirely within the ocean. Your character can swim up to the surface, but will emerge to see nothing but an unbroken expanse of water in every direction.

Fortunately, whatever calamity occurred did not leave the ocean barren. Quite the opposite: Abzû’s world is swirling with life. Fish swim individually or in schools, darting through tall, languid stalks of kelp. It’s visually busy, but never distracting. Each location you visit is differentiated by a dominant color scheme that infuses ­­­­everything around you. It provides a visual cohesion to all the chaos that also keeps you freshly engaged in each new turn.

You travel through a series of luminescent caverns and sunken temples, and the manmade environments around you all bear some kind of Mediterranean or Near Eastern influence. Whether it’s pictographs across rectangular tile reminiscent of Ancient Crete, detailed geometric arabesque mosaics, or startlingly involved Muqarnas domes, there is a conspicuous mathematical rigidity to the structures in contrast to the organic undulations of the creatures that now make their home among the abandoned spaces. All of this is supported by an airy score composed by Austin Wintory, who previously provided the uplifting orchestration for Journey.

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Playing Abzû is simple. You can swim and give off little toots from your sonar. In the right spots, those signals unearth little drone companions that help you with basic environmental puzzles, like cutting through coral gates that block your path. You can also use sonar to collect perfunctory spiral shells or to awaken portals that release more creatures into the ocean. All your actions are passive, and you don’t have to worry about being idly masticated between the thorny little teeth of some mindless sea monster.

But Abzû is still able to create a sense of unease even in the absence of enemies. As you literally and figuratively dive further into the game, the candy-colored shallows give way to a deeper, more primordial ocean. The light from the surface dims, and the weight of the ocean surrounding you becomes almost a tangible thing. You become isolated as the swarms you left behind diminish to a few imposing creatures that swim at the edge of your periphery, formless and barely visible. At the ocean floor, surrounded by volcanic vents and architectural skeletons of great wales poking from the sand, you begin to notice a few impossible creatures as well. Without explanation, older, stranger sea creatures that should have gone extinct eons ago emerge alongside their modern-day descendants. It creates a deeply alien environment, one that puts you on edge without ever having to threaten you with danger.

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Safety is not guaranteed for the other ocean dwellers. Abzû celebrates life, but it doesn’t neglect the entire cycle. Meditation is a feature of the game. At certain points, you’re allowed to sit, lotus-style, and project your mind outward to follow alongside the fish swimming around you. That meditation is only performed while seated on the back of aggressive-looking shark-headed statues should be the first indication that it’s not solely a passive activity. Often, you’ll be zoning out, watching your gormless little sea buddy flitting about only to get startled as it’s suddenly snapped up and consumed by a larger sea creature.

Abzû’s narrative twists a bit from its straightforward environmental simulator appearance. There are no stunning reveals, but it’s more enjoyable experienced than explained here. The story remains minimal, working in the service of creating and sustaining a mood more than telling something elaborate. The exception is an ongoing relationship your character forms with a scarred great white shark that acts as a stand-in for your larger obligation to the ecosystem as you cross paths throughout the game. But it feels like an unnecessary holdover from another kind of game rather than part of the sensory, stream-of-consciousness experience Abzû presents. As the game itself shows, there is enlightenment in experiencing the push and pull and great and small that’s all bound together in the ocean. But when a swift crunch of the jaws is all that separates the locus of your transcendence from lunch, perhaps it’s wise not to become too sentimental.

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Abzû
Developer: Giant Squid Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4
Reviewed on: PC
Price: $20
Rating: E

Purchase Abzû for PlayStation 4 here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

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