Review: Abzu is enchanting and relaxing, yet a bit too familiar

Vibrantly colorful and incredibly polished, fans of Journey will find themselves at home.

Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4
Developer: Giant Squid
Publisher: 505 Games
MSRP: $19.99
I’ve been hot on Abzu’s trail since the game’s initial reveal at E3 2014. A lot of that had to do with the fact that I loved thatgamecompany’s 2012 epic, Journey, and two of the people who worked on that game, art director Matt Nava and composer Austin Wintory were leading the way on Abzu. It’s weird then that in many ways that despite the fact that Abzu is exactly the game I wanted and thought it would be, I find myself a tad underwhelmed by the final product.
You know the old saying that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same spot? One could make the argument that the same logic applies to both Journey and Abzu. I don’t want to say that Abzu is simply an underwater version of Journey, it certainly has its own identity. The problem is that a lot of Abzu’s level beats and emotional arcs feel exactly like Journey, particularly in the early going. 
It’s tough to say specific things without spoiling the game’s story, especially given the fact that Abzu can take a mere 2 hours to play from start to finish. What I can say for sure is that if you like Journey (or any of thatgamecompany’s previous works), there’s no reason why you won’t like Abzu. It’s just hard to fall in love with Abzu in the same way that you could with Journey.
Review: Abzu is enchanting and relaxing, yet a bit too familiar
A lot of care went into making Abzu.
It’s immediately apparent just how much effort Giant Squid has put into creating Abzu when you first fire up the game. The elegance through which the main characters moves through the water and leaps above the waterline is unlike anything any other game has offered to date. The way the seaweeds brush away from your body instead of phasing through shows how minute the developer’s attention to detail was when creating Abzu. 
One of the other things that are impressive about Abzu is how much it is able to do with underwater environments. When your entire game takes place underwater, it can run the risk of blurring together with environments that look too similar to one another. Fortunately, through brilliant uses of color, not to mention certain story beats (which I won’t spoil), Abzu does manage to keep itself looking fresh throughout. It also doesn’t hurt that the game is so short that it is impossible to overstay its welcome.
Review: Abzu is enchanting and relaxing, yet a bit too familiar
Game design is sound, but certain aspects are under-used.
While some like to joke and argue that games like Abzu, don’t deserve the title of “game”, Abzu’s mechanical build-up is fundamentally sound. The game does a good job of introducing new mechanics and presenting them to you in alternative contexts. Given the game’s short length, it doesn’t have time to revolutionize these contexts, but what’s here is enough to keep you from feeling like you’re simply along for the ride.
One of the things I will say that I was disappointed in were the drones that have been previewed in the time leading up to Abzu’s release. If anything, they seemed more important than they ended up being. Mechanically, their function is to drill through walls of coral that are blocking your way and you meet the first drone within the first ten minutes of the game. But (after certain story events) the drones eventually disappear altogether, leaving their purpose feeling somewhat unfulfilled.
Review: Abzu is enchanting and relaxing, yet a bit too familiar
Why am I doing this?
This is a question that I asked myself a lot while playing Abzu. In Journey, your purpose was clear within the first few seconds of the game; that shining mountain off in the distance is your destination. The mountain gave you this overarching sense of wonder, making you constantly ask yourself: why is the mountain important? What’s on top of the mountain? 
Abzu doesn’t have that. 
It lacks that thing that gives you that constant sense of wonderment. It tries to do something similar with the shark, but it doesn’t work nearly as well. But it does feel like it’s by design. Throughout the game, I was legitimately interested in learning what the importance of the shark was, but it just wasn’t the same. Abzu eventually answers most of your questions through tribal art (reminiscent of the kind from Journey) scribbled on the walls of underwater temples, but I also think that certain motivations are left up to your interpretation.
Review: Abzu is enchanting and relaxing, yet a bit too familiar
In the end, I believe Abzu is the game that Giant Squid set out to make. Its problem is that it seems like this is the only kind of game that Matt Nava and company know how (or are willing) to make. Abzu is built for both a specific kind of gamer and a specific kind of person. This is not a game about skill or instant gratification. It’s a slow, methodical and interpretive journey through a beautiful world that you won’t soon forget, though may not necessarily love. I don’t see Abzu having the same kind of staying power that Journey has enjoyed simply by virtue of the fact that what Abzu is trying to do simply isn’t new anymore.
I recommend Abzu to people who have enjoyed the kind of work thatgamecompany has put out because it looks like Giant Squid is here to do the same thing. Some might argue that $20 for 2 hours seems like a hefty price tag, but it’s all about how much you can appreciate the little things that go into game design. Abzu is a very good game, but it lacks that same amount of punch that Journey so effortlessly delivered back in 2012.