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Monday, May 27, 2024

After Us Review

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The pitch for After Us sounds like a perfect blend of post-apocalyptic restoration, a la Terra Nil, and classic, story-driven 3D platforming in the vein of Psychonauts. In reality, this lumbering beast is often a bit too directionless for its own good, leaning heavily on unwieldy platforming and mind-numbing combat to pad out the time between tearful but brief reunions with the various spirits of the forest you’ll need to restore before you reach the credits. In theory, that kind of light, wordless storytelling is forgivable for a game like this – assuming its platforming is tight enough to carry it. But in this case, it’s aggressively inconsistent.

The premise of After Us is pretty simple: You play as an extra-powerful forest spirit named Gaia, or the Spirit of Life if you wanna get fancy about it. But she doesn’t always handle that well, and sometimes her standard platforming moves can leap between feeling slippery – which was the case whenever I accidentally fired off her air dash too quickly – and feeling like a boulder sinking to the bottom of a river when the glide button seemed like it should have worked, but …didn’t, for whatever reason. That issue has caused me to endure hundreds of needless deaths.

What’s most interesting about playing as Gaia is her ability to use her “heart of the forest” ability to bring Earth back to life, one plant or animal at a time. She can throw it like a boomerang with a quick tap of the left trigger, which gives a satisfying little jolt of force feedback, but all it’s really used for is some lackluster combat and infrequent moments where you’ll need to reach a switch from a distance. The latter can be uniquely frustrating because Gaia automatically aims for distant objects at roughly the same altitude as her, meaning you’ll need to do lots of extra jumping where jumping wouldn’t normally seem necessary.

I found myself running around between each of its eight visually and mechanically distinct areas.


Alternatively, holding down the left trigger and releasing it causes Gaia to unleash the heart of the forest in a radius around her, creating a cool effect where she covers nearby surfaces in grass and flowers. Most of the time it’s just a visual facade with no lasting power, melting back into the Earth a few seconds later. That is until you find one of the eight forest spirits and use that very same power to permanently return them to the Ark, a central hub area you can visit and which serves as a petting zoo containing all the ghostly animals you’ve collected through your journeys. Yes, you can pet a ghost dog, but I’d have preferred a living one.

Anyway, that’s pretty much all you need to know about Gaia or the paper-thin story that After Us is telling. Each forest spirit is connected by an open world filled with corridors that allow travel between each zone, and I found myself running around between each of its eight visually and mechanically distinct areas, using the convenient fast-travel system to take it all in at a whim.

At the same time, there’s no real sense of direction because you can do anything in any order you choose to. As a result, I ran into a point toward the end of the 12-hour story where I no longer felt like it was guiding me toward its conclusion at all. I spent way more time than I would’ve liked trying to figure out which path would take me to the final level. “Final level” is subjective here, since there’s no ascending difficulty to speak of between these open-ended zones, and mechanics are often replaced instead of built upon. And, without spoiling anything, the conclusion of the campaign is exactly as anti-climactic as you might expect of a game that has no dialogue and also doesn’t stick to a linear story.

I probably would’ve had a better time if there wasn’t any combat at all.


The primary villains you’ll deal with are the Devourers, which are basically just the malevolent ghosts of the humans that destroyed the Earth through rampant consumerism. They’re not that much fun to fight, since the only thing you can use against them is your boomerang orb, which doesn’t do that much damage and forces you to run back and forth as you shoot it and recall it over and over again. There also aren’t that many varieties of enemies, and if they grab you, you can conveniently just tap the X button until you easily break away from them. Battles mostly boil down to running back and forth in a circle, and it always felt like After Us was just trying to pad out its boggy story with unnecessary combat encounters. I probably would’ve had a better time if there wasn’t any combat at all.

At least the graphics are great. Visual design is the real star of the show in After Us, and there’s a shocking amount of mechanical and visual diversity across its campaign. Many of its ideas are bold; for instance, there’s a level where I needed to avoid ghostly saw blades while racing through a dilapidated national park. There’s another level that had me teleporting between television screens and racing between electric pylons with a rail-grinding minigame not unlike that of Ratchet & Clank. It all looks gorgeous when played on a 4K TV in the 2K Performance Mode on a PlayStation 5, and I have to applaud it for its mostly consistent performance, minus a few stutters and hitches here and there.

After Us Screenshots

But these visual and storytelling ideas only sometimes come together naturally in action, and since the level design is so inconsistent in terms of moment-to-moment platforming, getting through many of these sections with such flaky controls often amounted to doing a lot of guesswork. Too many times to count, getting through a section felt like I was just dying a lot until I tried a jump that seemed unlikely and somehow ended up being the thing I needed to do the whole time. It’s not always that fun or satisfying, but it’s hard to call it particularly challenging since autosaves are so prevalent that I sometimes died and respawned, miraculously, at the save point just past where I died.

Whether I was having fun or not, the whole time I was treated to a great synth-driven musical score that channels the instantly recognizable Blade Runner sound. Again, it’s almost all synthetic, but its wide sawtooth pads and arpeggios are deeply engrossing, feeling right at home in the often dark and gloomy post-apocalyptic world After Us is set in. The only thing that’s missing is a guy lamenting about C-beams and attack ships off the shoulder of Orion. At least there’s a scene with tears and rain.

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Verdict

After Us is difficult to recommend for its platforming alone, though its nature-focused kitsch gives way to gorgeous visuals as you breathe life back into its post-apocalyptic world. Some of its levels left a grin on my face, whereas others had me begging for sweet release from the inconsistent controls and directionless world. At least there’s a silver lining in that its beautiful art direction and entrancing musical score make for some really cool sequences. And yet I can’t help but feel like After Us is too heavy-handed about its environmentalist themes for a video game that hardly characterizes its protagonist and has literally no dialogue. By the end, I felt like I’d have done less environmental damage had I simply chosen to skip it.

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