Comparisons between Abzu and 2012's Journey have been drawn ever since the former first showed off gameplay at E3 2015. Even before that, the spectre of thatgamecompany's classic loomed over its creators. Journey's art director Matt Nava is creative director here, having founded his own studio, and Austin Wintory returns as composer.
Nava departed thatgamecompany in 2013 to start up Giant Squid Studios, with Wintory signing on immediately to provide his proven and celebrated talents. Since then, they and the rest of the team have been working away at Abzu: an artful underwater adventure very much in the vein of thatgamecompany's Flow, Flower and Journey.
Drawing comparisons between Abzu and these games has been just, and remains so when reviewing the final product. Abzu is often stunning in its audio-visual design, but it's also an unapologetic imitation of Flower and Journey. The similarities run so deep that the game never escapes the nagging feeling that for all the artistry on show this is a safe and ultimately boring way to spend an hour and a half.
Abzu casts players as a mute diver swimming through the oceans to bring back life to its darkest, most barren regions. Throughout, there are a handful of large open spaces with basic puzzles between players and the means to move on. Each of these areas is full of life – sea creatures that can be swam with and clung to, aquatic plant life that flows on the currents – and objects to find. Some offer a glimpse at the game's deeper lore, others will release new creatures into the waters: some familiar, others ancient, all named for the benefit of the player. Just like finding trapped pieces of cloth in Journey.
Between these areas are passages where, often, the player is swept along at speed, able to swim through schools of fish to attain a boost - just like floating through clouds of cloth or petals in Journey or Flower. The player interacts with objects with a single button that is held down to emit a larger pulse – just like Journey. When you move faster with the press of another button the player-character's fins glow and extend, reminiscent of the scarf in Journey. The pacing of certain orchestrated set pieces and the soaring score that accompanies them - yes, just like Journey.
You get the picture.
Abzu reminds you of these games in its broad strokes, but the smaller moments and gameplay quirks really drive home of the idea that this is a game bereft of any ideas beyond: 'It's an underwater Journey'. The game differentiates itself slightly in terms of setting and scale (given you're moving freely in a 3D space) but not in as many ways as it needs to.
A particular moment roughly two thirds of the way through strikes as being when Giant Squid intended to give the game its own identity, and while it briefly succeeds in at least switching up the gameplay, the new element introduced is short-lived and uninspired. A meditation feature that lets players take stock and inspect the plentiful wildlife is pleasant, but adds nothing to the core game.
Abzu does so much that's reminiscent of thatgamecompany's work, but something rings hollow about it all. Movement is as well-animated, but not as balletic or graceful in how it feels. It's not as engaging - something was achieved through Journey's passive multiplayer element and moments of peril punishing the vulnerable protagonist. Journey had purpose and an end goal made clear in its opening moments. It was very clearly about pushing ahead from point A to point B. It was about the journey. Abzu is vaguer in its goals. It's always clear where you're meant to be going in the immediate future, but never where it is that you're going long-term.
The brevity of the game also doesn't help. I'd reached the credits in just shy of an hour and a half which only compounded the feeling that Abzu is a bit of a pointless exercise in proving the team behind it is capable of mimicking thatgamecompany, rather than standing as its own entity.
As overt as the recreation of Journey is, Abzu remains a game rich in artistic quality however. The environments are absolutely gorgeous, bursting with colour and alive with several Sea Life Centres-worth of fish, turtles, whales and sharks. Austin Wintory's score too is wonderful (you can listen to it here), when taken on its own merit. It just can't be taken on its own merit. It's a very nicely version cover version/remix of that Grammy-nominated Journey soundtrack, and that speaks of the game as a whole.
Abzu is beautiful and well put-together, but cannot escape its self-inflicted sense of déjà vu. Matt Nava and Giant Squid Studios have played it safe. Too safe. If there were to be a Journey knock-off, this is among the best you could hope for, but who really wants an imitation at all? There is an obvious artistry to Abzu however, that we can only hope is put to better use in whatever comes next.