After Us Review: A Step Back
I was a fan of Piccolo Studio’s last title, Arise: A Simple Story. True to its name, it told a simple but beautiful tale of a character moving on after their death while reliving the most important moments of their life. It’s a memorable experience. Because of this, I was super excited to see what they would do next. After Us is that next step, and while it again captures a certain amount of beauty, once again, it’s held back by gameplay systems that don’t fully hold up to the game’s concept.
After Us takes place in a ruined world where the last life has been snuffed out. Mother has saved the souls of various animal species, though, and there’s still a chance to restore some measure of life if your playable character of Gaia can find those souls and release them. While this is definitely a more surrealistic experience than Piccolo Studio’s previous game, it’s once again moving with sights and sounds which come together to create moments of great beauty. There’s a clear environmental message here which, while perhaps a bit obvious, should resonate with those who see the danger our planet is in.
Changes Aren’t Always For the Better
Since After Us is a game and not a movie, though, you actually have to play it. My biggest complaint about Arise was that its somewhat loose controls and complete lack of any challenge not tied to those control issues left players with a rather one-note adventure. It was something to play through once and to remember, but not something you’d have any reason to revisit or which took strong advantage of the medium. It feels like Piccolo Studios have responded to those issues by trying to create more of a challenge, but in doing so, they’ve created a new set of issues.
Movement in After Us is fluid as you maneuver Gaia through a variety of environments that don’t make a ton of sense but which are visually interesting and capture the imagination. You have the ability to jump, dash, and glide all over the place, and you can unleash a blast of energy to restore life to an area around you, at least temporarily. Moving through the world, you’re really just trying to get through and avoid enemies determined to destroy the spirits of the last animals so the Earth will be finished. There’s rarely a lot of challenge when it comes to moment-to-moment gameplay, and when you do face any, you’ll quickly be restored to a nearby location, but I appreciated the stronger sense of control as compared to Arise.
That’s not to say there’s no challenge present in After Us, but only that it comes from poor direction. It isn’t that this is a game where you’re given no direction and rewarded for exploring. Instead, it’s a game where you’re regularly given confusing directions, which doesn’t do enough to send you where you need to go. I frequently found myself completely lost because a bit of instruction simply didn’t make sense. While with enough exploration, I could generally get back on track, this exploration is rarely rewarding. Large areas of After Us are empty, and there’s little to do other than move forward, so as I went in circles through an area trying to spot a poorly presented path forward, I quickly grew tired of After Us. Its controls may be better than the studio’s last game, but the moment-to-moment gameplay is still nothing to write home about and didn’t make up for the frustration the game so commonly provided.
If After Us’ true moments of beauty showed up a bit more frequently, that might all go down a bit better, but they’re a bit too far between for my tastes. There are some rather beautiful environments and images here, but the lack of a more traditional narrative doesn’t give players a ton to hook onto and drive them forward. I love the look of the world at times, but other areas are filled with boring greys and death. I know that’s trying to drive home the destruction of this potentially beautiful world, but that doesn’t make it any more interesting to experience. The most consistent source of light in the world is Gaia herself, but I found her design to be perhaps the game’s weakest visual element. Her awkward style and one-note color scheme are a mistake when they’re the one thing players can consistently grab onto.
There are beautiful moments in After Us worth seeing, but they’re buried in poorly directed levels featuring merely adequate gameplay. There’s not enough to consistently grab onto here to really hook most players. After Us has a lot in common with Piccolo Studios’ last narrative platformer but ultimately doesn’t offer the charm or consistently moving story that made that game so memorable.
Final Verdict: 2.5/5
Available on: PS5 (Reviewed), Xbox Series X|S, PC; Publisher: Private Division; Developer: Piccolo Studio; Players: 1; Released: May 23rd, 2023; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $29.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of After Us provided by the publisher.