Anyone watching the trailer for After Us might think this game is a new Flower or Journey. Nothing could be further from the truth in this platformer that prioritizes a pedantic finger over a celebration of color. Is that fun? Find out in our review.
We got it. The world is broken and we did it. Through overfishing, logging, pollution, overproduction and dumping of waste, humanity has gone extinct and we immediately took the animals with us in our trap.
Mother, the embodiment of nature, has used her last powers to encapsulate the spirit of the last animals and needs you, Gaia, to free them. You are sent out to find out the fate of the last animals and gather their energy so that together they can bring Mother back to full bloom.
Behold the cheerful backstory of After Us, an ecological game with the central theme of how bad we humans are to our nature and ourselves. Gaia, shaped as a white light-emitting girl, traverses eight different locations, each brimming with pollution, litter, tar and oil stains and more. In case it wasn’t clear yet: humanity is no good.
Where the environments are mostly shaped in brownish hues and trash, Gaia manages to bring color back into them – temporarily or not. Gaia knows a number of tricks. She can (double)jump but also emit a white energy sphere. With this energy sphere she can temporarily plant greenery in her immediate environment, but also use it as a weapon.
Sometimes this is necessary because not all humans are really completely gone. The environments are littered with humanoid sculptures, most of which seem to be trudging along in the direction you are expected to go, but some have also turned into devourers, humanoids that haven’t forgotten how to consume and see you as prey.
Platform until you drop
The Devourers are not your greatest enemies in After Us; the environment itself is. To advance in search of the lost animals, you must traverse a complex platforming course of mostly airborne boulders, cars, roads, pieces of trash and more.
In the process, Gaia cannot hold onto edges or other security. Anyone who jumps wrong will fall into the depths. With a little luck you land in a safe place, but more often you fall from a great height, or end up in a tar pit, both of which are deadly for our Gaia.
The game has no UI, so you have to figure out for yourself what is expected of you. This is quite tricky at times, since After Us is huge. The human-sculptures do act as a kind of direction guide, they usually look in the direction you are expected to go, but they are also frequently completely absent and you have to figure out for yourself where you are expected to go.
Sometimes it is also smart to deviate from the expected path for a while. After all, in addition to the eight “main animals,” you can also free dozens of support animals. The more animals you free, the more colorful the environment becomes. In fact, the freed animals appear as bluish silhouettes in the world, finally starting to give it some color.
There are also human sculptures that still have a glimmer of life. When you free them, you unlock a piece of their story, a story told in a dozen or so icons per chapter. Thus, even if you have played a chapter, there is still plenty of reason to play through that chapter again, looking for animals or stories you may have missed.
What’s clever is that Gaia doesn’t actually learn anything along the way. Whereas many games teach the protagonist new tricks halfway through, this is not the case with Gaia. Still, each environment has its own gameplay, but is actually dictated by that same environment.
For example, to find the eagle you will have to climb a huge tower, while in the factory you will have to follow production lines of cars. In the mine, you face the threat of exploding dynamite, and in the ocean, spinning propellers cause a deadly current, just to name a few examples.
Caught in its own misery
After Us has a message it wants to convey, and it is more than obvious. Those who are allergic to ecological drivel had better circle around After Us, because truly every part of the game is steeped in this theme. Therein lies also immediately the problem. Because of its extreme focus on human profligacy, the game is caught in a web.
Even though the game has eight completely different environments (a logged forest, ocean, factory, a mine with mining carts and dynamite, a factory where an infinite array of cars are made), each environment is quite bleakly designed with dark colors.
Even Gaia can’t do much to change that. Here and there she can grow a tree and temporarily she can release a circle of green vegetation, but soon everything falls back into the same colorless mush.
That things can be different, The Ark shows. The place where Mother resides is an oasis of green and color, in great contrast to the rest of the game world. It is a pity that you spend so little time here.
Games such as the aforementioned Journey and Flower show that things can be done differently; they (especially Flower) are also critical of human consumption and its consequences, but they do so in a splash of color.
After Us Review – Ecology over graphic splendor
Developer Piccolo has not made it easy on itself. With the goal of making a fun platformer on the one hand and trying to convey an eco-message on the other, the game finds itself in a somewhat uncomfortable split. You seduce gamers with beautiful environments and tight gameplay, not with hell and damnation.
In this, After Us succeeds only partially. The games remain dark and brown, even as the player progresses through the game. As a result, the game doesn’t really invite the player to play the next chapter. This is a pity, because the gameplay is well put together, with varied gameplay per chapter.
It would have been nice if Gaia had been a little more capable of holding its own on the floating plateaus. The size and vastness of levels makes it difficult to navigate at times, but most of the time it can be solved with some sleuthing; after all, the game is linear in scope.
All in all, After Us is a nice game with quite a lot of content and a lot of extras that increase replayability. The negative eco approach does put a damper on the joy of playing, but if you can see past that, you will see a fine and challenging platforming game.