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E3 Preview: ‘ABZU’

Secrets and surprises await beneath the sea in PlayStation 4 exclusive 'ABZU'

Given its serene setting, soothing music, and ballet-like swimming mechanics, developer Giant Squid’s underwater adventure Abzu could almost be mistaken for a scuba-diving simulation or peaceful exploratory experience.

Based on our recent hands-on demo, however, it seems the ambitious indie has plenty of surprises, secrets, and even some scares hidden beneath the sea. As an anonymous diver, we find ourselves in the ocean and immediately begin learning the basics. Forgoing strict realism for a more surreal experience, Abzu allows you to stay underwater as long as you like. In addition to not having to worry about gasping for air, you can seamlessly swim in a free-form fashion that real-life scuba professionals could never pull off. From tumbling and flipping to speed-boosting and barrel-rolling, the fluid, elegant mechanics afford your diver an almost acrobatic feel.

Abzu does, in fact, have objectives, as well as a story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end.

With the basic moves mastered, we reach a mysterious statue sitting on the ocean floor. Interacting with the curious object allows us to perch on its surface and take in the surrounding sites. In this meditative state, we can actually follow fish by essentially orbiting the game’s camera around them. This neat trick allows an especially up-close look at the detailed ecosystem — right down to witnessing the larger fish gobble up the little ones — all while our diver sits stoically in the background.

If this activity sounds a bit too passive, players are welcome to get more adventurous by actually grabbing a fish’s fins and going for a ride. Once attached to the slippery swimmers, you’re able to steer them wherever you like and watch how they react to the world around them. Of course, if you hitch a ride on a hungry predator, it may veer off your intended path to satisfy its appetite. Hijacking a fish provides a great way to explore the game’s breathtaking environments or quickly reach an objective.

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Abzu does, in fact, have objectives, as well as a story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end. We start to enjoy a taste of these narrative elements when, first, we get the funny feeling we’re being followed by a shark, and then when we discover a tiny drone. What began as a relaxing underwater getaway starts to feel more like an episode of the X-Files. While the shark leaves us alone, for the moment, the drone leads us to a wall of coral that it’s able to slice open with a laser. On top of being an unexpected sci-fi-flavored surprise, the act grants us access to a previously inaccessible area.

Upon exploring the new environment a bit, we find what appears to be a lake within the ocean. According to Abzu‘s Creative Director Matt Nava, the surreal discovery is actually based on a real-world phenomenon where pools of liquid, heavier than ocean water, create these “undersea lakes.” Of course, fact morphs into fiction when the natural anomaly gives way to a secret entrance leading to the game’s first power-up, a magical artifact that grants our diver longer fins.

Once equipped with our new ability — which allows us to swim faster — we anxiously push forward to see what other secrets await. Another new area is soon revealed, apparently by the draining of the mysterious lake, and we’re joined by two more drones. In our haste to continue down a path that now feels inspired more by Metroid than a diving sim, we hurtle through the entrance only to have one of our robot companions chomped by the shark we’d feared earlier.

Our demo concludes on this cliffhanger, leaving us anxiously awaiting Abzu‘s summer release — and our next encounter with its toothy antagonist.