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Mini-reviews: Abzû and Manual Samuel

Two great, short and very different games for a rainy day (or a sunny one, I’m not judging).

Having “saved up” games for six months, my backlog of games has started to grow, and while I like to put my thoughts to the paper, I also want to prioritize actually playing games during the summer holidays. Since several of the games are also very short, mini-reviews seemed to be a good solution.

Therefore, here are mini-reviews of two games I played through yesterday (told you they were short): The aesthetically magnificent Abzû, developed by LA-based Giant Squid Studios (including a few of the people behind Journey), and the whimsically comical Manual Samuel, developed by Perfectly Paranormal based in Hamar, Norway.


The Diver looking up at the sun
It’s safe to say that Abzû is a fairly relaxing experience.

Abzû

It’s difficult to write a proper review of Abzû: Not only because of its length, placing a natural limit on how much you can say without delving into deeper criticism (with all the spoilers that entails); it’s also the kind of untraditional game where the concept of the traditional game review starts to come apart at the seams.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Abzû is a kind of “zen” game along the likes of Journey and Flower in which you’re swimming around in the oceans and relishing in the sights of the underwater flora and fauna, but it would certainly be selling the game short.

The diver swimming with a whale shark
It can feel majestic to swim with large animals.

There is a kind of story which certainly motivates you to progress, but it’s fully non-verbal, mostly in the background (though it takes a bit more central stage towards the end), and largely open to interpretation. The main “beats” of Abzû are instead served through changes in the wonderful scenery and the antics of the underwater fauna, and the game certainly nails this aspect. The wildlife has no “function”, it just exists. From schools of colourful fish and sea turtles to dolphins and whales, they carry out their normal existence regardless of you. While you can swim with the larger beasts and somewhat influence their movements, they have the final say in where they want to swim, and there’s no mechanical point to it – the possibility exists simply for the aesthetic pleasure.

And therein lies the central experience of Abzû, I think: Aesthetic pleasure. From the brilliant, sun-filled shallows teeming with colourful life to the shadowy, cold depths with bioluminescent creatures; from the tiniest clownfish to the largest blue whales; from kelp forests to sandbanks – Abzû is gorgeous to behold. On several occasions your avatar is able to sit down on selected spots and “meditate”, shifting the viewpoint over to all the sea creatures around you and allowing you to simply take in the beauty of it all.

The Diver in a shoal of fish
The wildlife go about their daily lives regardless of your presence.

Abzû may seem un-engaging from a mechanical perspective, but berating it for that would be missing the point. Abzû is a slow-paced and aesthetically pleasing underwater journey, and not being a significant investment of either time or money, gets my unreserved recommendation.


Samuel and Death driving a car
Remember to breathe, Samuel! And blink. And steer. Oh, and by the way, it’s a stick shift.

Manual Samuel

Manuel Samuel, while just as short as Abzû, is more of a classical “game” and considerably easier to review. And let me get this out of the way at once: The game might be the funniest I have ever played.

The concept is this: You are Samuel, an insufferable, spoiled, rich brat not having done a day’s worth of manual labour in your life. After being run over by a truck, you arrive in Hell and meet Death, who cuts you a deal: You can continue living if you can survive for 24 hours while manually controlling all your bodily functions, which includes (but is certainly not limited to) blinking, breathing (both in and out), putting one foot in front of another, and keeping your body in a generally vertical position.

Samuel and Death in Samuel's home
Posture, Samuel, posture!

Couple this with a a great sense of humour, a silly cartoonish style, wonderfully whimsical animations, and good voice acting (particularly from the narrator), and you can start to see how this might result in two hours of laughing out loud.

I don’t think I’ll spoil more than that. It’s no longer than your average movie and costs no more than a fancy cup of coffee, so there’s little risk in trying it out. If you consistently struggle with having to keep track of too many buttons, this may not be the game for you – otherwise, do try this game.

I mean, it’s got both verbal and musical references to Bastion, for crying out loud!

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2 thoughts on “Mini-reviews: Abzû and Manual Samuel”

  1. My thoughts exactly on Abzû (have you been reading my review, my good man?). The only thing missing from this game is a David Attenborough commentary track, and Planet Earth 3 is a reality.

    1. I certainly had that thought, but I couldn’t very well say that too or the review would border on plagiarism ;) In all seriousness though, we just had the same thoughts on the game, it seems. I read a few other reviews too which said things along the same lines.