After Us Review – A haunting wasteland

Reviewed May 24, 2023 on PS5

Platforms:

PC, PS5, Xbox Series X

Released:

May 23, 2023

Publisher:

Private Division

Developer:

Piccolo Studio

An ocean of miscellaneous garbage stretches endlessly across the horizon. Hissing industrial flames scorch the sky, as thick acrid rain drizzles lazily into steaming sumps. Lumbering, crimson-eyed ghasts snarl and claw at any sign of life, greedy husks of the beings they once were. Amid the desolation, a glowing being darts desperately through, healing and cleansing whatever fragments of nature they can. This is the setting of After Us, an atmospheric puzzle-platformer that tasks you with salvaging the remains of a broken world. We recently had the opportunity to play a preview build of this title, and found its platforming engaging and its world fascinating. What has surprised me about the full release of After Us is just how utterly terrifying it can be.

While its visual design immediately may evoke more free-flowing titles such as Journey, After Us is a decidedly less wistful experience. It begins with a cutscene showing nature meeting its grisly end: the world has been all but ruined by the greedy “Devourers”, human-like figures that represent a corrupted humankind.  We soon see an ethereal being awaken. This is Gaia, a spirit who glows with natural energy and grows grass underfoot with every step. Gaia is seen gambolling in a field with wild animals, until the destructive reach of the Devourers descends upon them, consuming every last animal life. Gaia, devastated, is cast into the shattered remains of the world. They are eventually awoken by a mysterious Mother, who sends them on a quest to retrieve the souls of the now extinct animals and return their spirits to the world. Playing as Gaia, you begin traversing the ruined cities and landscapes of this broken dreamscape of a world and collect greater spirits, as well as the memories of a long-decayed humanity.

Gaia has a series of platforming abilities in their arsenal which feel intuitive and satisfying to execute. Chaining together double-jumps and dashes may be par for the course for a 3D platformer, but the stylistic animations and responsiveness of After Us’ controls make movement an intrinsically enjoyable affair. You’ll also unlock site-specific abilities such as travelling through TV screens and grinding on electrical wires. Holding the left trigger will charge up a burst of spirit energy that Gaia can use to clear up sludge, spark natural growth, or stun foes. Tapping the same trigger sends Gaia’s spirit out to activate switches, collect animal souls, and cleanse the spirits of Devourers, those desiccated remnants of humanity. A comforting touch is the ability to swipe the PlayStation’s touchpad to pet any nearby animal spirits that you’ve unlocked, causing them to sing out to you.

Much of After Us is spent platforming through stark, beautifully desolate environments. Animal souls are usually hidden, and require careful navigation and puzzle-solving to discover. Gaia can sing to activate a swarm of butterflies that leads them to nearby souls which provides some guidance, but actual progression through each level is occasionally confusing. The commitment to a harsh, grim aesthetic is gorgeous and evokes tremendous melancholy, but it does mean that environmental elements tend to blend together. Thankfully, there are usually enough subtle clues and helpful camera angles to guide you in the right direction. Each level takes place in a different section of the ruined world, with puzzles designed around its place in society. This keeps the platforming and puzzling fresh, and serves to differentiate each area thematically. The greater animal spirits act as finales to each area, with unique mechanics tied to the animal you’ll unlock (e.g. the bird spirit sees Gaia climbing a series of birdcages, while the bee spirit requires travelling through enormous honey mazes).

In addition to scouring the world for animal souls, you’ll also collect memories by cleansing Devourers, unlocking images of society before its destruction. These snapshots usually form a cohesive story within an area, providing some humanity to the esoteric narrative. Collecting memories also feeds into After Us’ combat. Apart from the many tentacle-filled pools of sludge and the odd aggressive plastic bag, the zombie-like Devourers are Gaia’s primary hazard. Grotesque humanoids dripping with sludge, they come in a few different varieties and require ample use of Gaia’s dash and dodge abilities. Most need a few blasts with Gaia’s spirit to be cleansed, with some holding “shields” that require them to be stunned or dodged around first. Combat usually feels more frantic than strategic, but the generous respawn points, usable environmental traps, and occasional puzzle-focused “boss” fight prevent its mechanics from feeling out of place in a platformer.

Where other atmospheric platformers provide soothing or adventurous environments to frolic through, After Us instead relentlessly reminds the player that this world is dangerous, desolate, and destroyed. Its difficulty is entirely psychological, forcing you to confront the horrors of its dystopia with only tidbits of hope and warmth along the way. The Devourers are unexpectedly terrifying. They burst out of the darkness, accompanied by a sudden pulsating beat and desperately lunging for you. Some environments with more of a platforming focus, such as the power plant, feel mostly safe – until they suddenly aren’t and a horde of monstrous beings surround you midway through the level, red eyes blazing and grotesque limbs outstretched. You can never relax, even when the soothing synthwave soundtrack feels obsessed with making you chill out.

After a while, the oppressive nature of After Us’ world begins to wear you down a little. While the ever-present animal spirits and little pockets of nature provide some comfort, the visually grim platforming environments and their constant clusters of hunched, miserable humanoid figures start to take their toll on how enjoyable this experience can be. For me, After Us tapped into an all-too-real sense of climate anxiety and impending doom that made it incredibly challenging to keep playing, particularly in light of ongoing “never before seen” global climate events. It’s a beautiful, haunting story, and a solid puzzle-platformer with gorgeous visuals – but be warned, After Us has the heart and soul of a psychological horror game at its core.

7.5

Good

Positive:

  • Hauntingly immersive post-apocalyptic world
  • Satisfying puzzle-platforming challenges
  • Stunning design in visuals and audio

Negative:

  • Progression is unclear at times
  • Oppressive atmosphere becomes gruelling after a while

A chilling fever dream of dystopian hope, After Us takes the mechanics of an atmospheric puzzle-platformer and uses them to create a beautifully unsettling experience that feels a little too real. Its satisfying traversal challenges through gorgeously rendered wastelands provide plenty of engaging gameplay moments for platforming fans, though its relentlessly oppressive environments may prove too harsh for some. Haunting and immersive, but definitely not for the faint of heart.