ABZU: Attention 2 Detail In-depth Analysis
All about the journey or some'FIN' more?
The Ocean, a large, formidable and on the whole alien world to us air breathing mammals. But it is also a place of joy, wonder and endless interest and information for us.
It can also make some great cinema and video game creations and ABZU , meaning Ocean of wisdom for the primeval sea within the Mesopotamian religion , the game is using that mythology to take you on a deep sea journey.
Appropriate indeed for the 12 strong Giant Squid teams first title headed up by Journey visual artist Matt Nava. Anyone who has played these artistically rich games will already know the sheer joy, wonder and tranquillity they can deliver, with Journey striking a chord with a huge portion of us games players.
The mesmerising beauty of the sea, schools of fish, a pod of whales in this linear tale of adventure can be even more intoxicating accompanied by the elusive 13th member Austin Wintory's sumptuous classical ambient soundtrack that can be listened to over and over again. It has that innocent yet informative tone like the classic Howard Blake Snowman music . It completes this antithetical title to the majority of fast paced, octane orientated big boy action. Instead delivering a calm, peaceful and yet engrossing adventure whilst affirming humans insignificance in this vast world, you never, ever feel the Big fish in this pond.
Currently exclusive to the PC and PS4 for now you can pick up on your chosen platform aside XboxOne owners at present sadly but I feel is on the cards. Here I am covering the PS4 release that I purchased from the PSN store and have enjoyed over the past few days. As the game relies on its theme, flow and story I will not delve into that in any detail as it would ruin it for you. But it is not a long game and not for everyone with again a slow and most drama free experience throughout.
A technical Deep Dive
This PS4 release is presented in a fully native 1920 x 1080 image with an unlocked but fully V-synced frame rate, covered later. Using a rich and bright Mediterranean colour palette it has a similar feel to Journey and The Witness that all fall within a similar transient and surreal experience. Animation is very smooth from your characters flapping fins, dorsal tails of others and the thousands of fish swarming around you like a particle vortex to the huge Blue whales that swim alongside you bringing home the gentle giant nature of many sea "beasts'" in inverted commas. These are realised with a simple almost cell shade that could be mistaken for flat vertex shading at times. But it complements the dream state intended straying close enough to be recognisable at all times but far enough to never encroach into realistic levels.
Colour, light, sound and dark are used exquisitely here changing the tone of each area and the mood you as you play. Bright blue expanses open up before you as light seeps through the ocean surface. Bloom is used across surfaces, gated windows and from light bounce impeccably. Green kelp areas shift the tone mapping further still with the base yellow of your helmet and guide still proud of the schemes in use and is a key ingredient to the game aesthetic. Shadow maps are extensively used and happily dance across floors, objects from your head torch or dispersing sunlight. Allowing you to see the animals above circling your area, casting on other objects and the world whilst also receiving shadows with a good mix of static and per object maps. Yours also works the same and when near the sea bed the high precision can be appreciated. Your head torch and guides all cast dynamic light and shadows that suggest stencil shadows are in use here as rock formations, objects all cast and scale within the light frustum. Colour bleeds out across your view, bouncing through and off the natural palette that comprises the sea bed, the ambient light tone changing across various areas in a great touch. Light sources come from all areas penetrating through objects with light touches of billboard crepuscular rays, baked GI, caustic reflections ripple & dance beneath the waves while surface emulates refraction from below.
Later levels cast much darker blues and blacks, with fish now sporting glowing eyes. The music tempo changes to accompany this shift from a bright and almost serene safety early on to a more obvious danger even though in reality as I diver myself danger is always present, although not to this games degree of course for me. Perfectly proving how psychological the human brain is. In fact the closest game I can akin this to is the Mighty Ecco the dolphin on the Megadrive or Mega CD as that had a similar ambient, none progressive tone, one of my childhood favourites. And of course the movie the Abyss.
Wide open space
Much of the mood and world is filled with a rich selection of sea-life ranging from dolphins, white tipped reef sharks, Orca's even Great whites all have screen time. I have yet to see Nemo or Dory but crush and crew make the trip down from the EAC as you hitch a ride (I have since been informed on my channel that Nemo is indeed included as a easter egg). Kelp floats and sways in the current, folds when other animals brush past. And even the player when left bobs within the underwater currents in tempo with your surroundings. The world and inhabitants all feel organic in motion. As light is dispersed under the surface specular tones are kept to a minimum aside surface visits or other tapestry occasions. This low albedo base along with the games Post AA delivers a clean and sharp if not completely shimmer free image helped by is post processing and simpler texturing. As far as the image goes it is probably the weakest point but only on thin edges and shader aliasing. Alpha effects are used for sand swirls near the bottom or bubbles which rise upward. Particles cover the sea as you swim fading in and out authentically. But it is the sheer quantity of animals on screen at once that delivers the most impressive feat.
Some may be surprised to learn this is also an Unreal Engine 4 title and like Rime does share a similar looking colour scheme and style. Using both camera and Per Object motion blur is not only welcome but greatly enhances the look of these large schools as you dart around and though. This was a big challenge for the team to generate and move tens of thousands of fish at once. Memory batching into spatial groups was one trick the team used to achieve this dense population. Another is that each fish or mammal is a single static mesh that is instanced as one draw call to reduce overhead on the system and CPU. Meaning that 5 species of fish could cover 20k instances on screen all from only 5 draw calls. These are animated by interpolating the vertex mesh through morph target animation rather than a full skeletal rig, similar to blend shapes. Lerping through the mesh all happens within the vertex shader and when inside a bait ball is clear the team succeeded on its target. As it truly captures the natural beauty and wonder of this world, Simply magnificent.
Using vertices frugally across the games characters, wildlife and collection of ancient ruins is another of the titles strong points. The angular look statues, limbs, creatures and pillars etc all compliment the stylised world. Everything has a sense of scale, grandeur and grace in-keeping with the world it portrays and the childlike helplessness of your adventure is a hark back to older RPG games that I and I am sure many enjoyed. Sitting on a rock and just admiring the synthesized eco-system created here as the soundtrack floods out is a great chill out tool and would make one hell of a theme or screen saver.
Performance is never an issue throughout most play but it does run, rather oddly, an unlocked frame rate but it never reaches the heights of 60Hz or frames per second sitting around the low 40's with an average of 36.5 across 10+ minutes of capture in a wide range of areas. The only time I could get a dip below what I would feel would be a near perfect 30Hz cap is when swimming within the tens of thousands strong bait ball. These dips below 33ms never last for any significant degree but only arrive unsurprisingly in this richer GPU strained section. With a vast quantity of vertices & polygon count on screen all whipping and flurrying around add in the high sampled Per object motion blur it can dip to a low of 21 in my tests but this is a genuine edge case. As the run of play sits only 8 or so frames higher than 30fps it straddles the line of no-man's land. Never feeling as smooth as 60 but really only feeling like a 30Hz game with small fluctuations across a 5-10 range taking the edge of that, it always feels smooth and with inverted controls very easy to control and master (this can be changed mind). My recommendation would be to add in a 30 cap option within the minimal menu and resolve any issues that some may have with the rate. As the stats prove it is a very smooth game currently helped with a lovely motion blur and could happily sit at 30fps 99.9% of the time which a cap would ensure.
Shell fresh conclusions
A striking piece of art and another impressive experience that although only lasting around 5 hours can go much longer if you enjoy it slower or return to unlock its secrets. It may not be for some and you have to know that this is always a single player, slow and methodical game designed around the feeling of isolation and exploration. With great speakers or headphones on a well configured TV you will be 'submerged' in exploring the depths without even getting your feet wet, flipping fantastic.