It's easy to take ABZÛ's swimming controls for granted. They are, after all, your only means of traversal in the game – it's natural to disregard something so close to home. But if Giant Squid's debut teaches us anything, it's that we should always take time to reflect on things which seem insignificant at first.
The secret of the title's controls is their fluidity. You spot something sparkly on the seafloor, so with a deft twist of the analogue stick you dart under a nearby rock to line yourself up then perfectly time three button taps to boost yourself over. Or you make your way to the bottom of an unfathomably deep ravine, swim a quick figure-of-eight to scout your surroundings, then flip the camera back towards the surface as you begin your ascent.
It's also the way that your character is animated. How the diver gently tucks her legs as she does a somersault. Or how she adjusts her body to compensate for the shifting currents when she treads water. All these tiny details make for a control system that just works.
This is good news, because this is a game almost entirely centred on exploration. It follows a consistent format: you swim into a new area, take a long and considered moment to admire, explore, and contemplate your surroundings, and then move on to the next area. As you investigate, you discover statues which allow you to meditate, as well as small shrines which unlock new creatures to ogle.There are also a handful of gleefully visceral sections which see you propelled down capacious currents packed with gorgeous scenery and wildlife.
Finally, there is a story to be slowly unearthed, as well as some basic puzzles to be solved. This structure may sound an awful lot like another popular PlayStation exclusive you may have played, but rest assured, this aquatic indie carves its own identity.
Indeed, there's something uniquely magical about ABZÛ's underwater playgrounds; something mythical and hard to pin down. It's in the way its submerged forests surge with life. The way schools of fish heave as you swim through them. The way sand splutters and coughs as you pass over it. The way you cling to the side of larger fish – controlling their movements, and watching as they devour the weaker, more vulnerable creatures.
This may be a simulated ecosystem, but it feels just as awe-inspiring and alive as the real thing. This liveliness has a lot to do with the way developer Giant Squid has presented its underwater world. Reactive and uncomplicated graphics, combined with a focus on colour and light, mean that there's boundless joy to be found in simply stopping for a gander.
And as you sit and stare, you're treated to some of the most intricate and beautiful sound design in recent memory: the pops and squeaks of deep-sea creatures, the guttural and breathy rush of underwater currents, the dull hum of diving equipment. These understated sound effects serve to further cement the consistency and intricacy of the world.
Underscoring this lush soundscape is an equally lush soundtrack, composed by the ever-brilliant Austin Wintory. Much like the marine life littered throughout the game, the score pulses with energy, never settling on any single theme or emotion.
Tying all of these elements together is the aforementioned story, which is unfortunately the title's only misstep. Told through ancient wall paintings and hieroglyphs, the narrative explores humankind's relationship with the natural world, and the way technology has influenced this relationship. While the fable-like structure means that it reveals itself subtly and at a satisfying pace, it never says anything particularly original or surprising – a shame, given how fresh the rest of the game feels.
ABZÛ is a triumph of exploration and atmosphere. Its gorgeous underwater playgrounds are a joy to explore thanks to its perfectly tuned controls, awe-inspiring visuals, and beautiful sound design. A somewhat predictable story does little to hamper what is otherwise an utterly unique and rapturous experience.