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When developing a game, having lofty ambitions in mind for your project can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, if everything involved works in concert to execute on a well-defined creative vision, the results can be magical. However, if any of what you strive to accomplish misses the mark, each failure shines that much brighter, drawing attention to itself. Developer Piccolo's After Us falls somewhere in between these two extremes, nailing some things, but dropping the ball on others.

After Us sees you assume the role of Gaia, a nymph-like creature, tasked with restoring life to a now-desolate planet. Humans have come and gone, and all that remains are the vestiges of their ignorance and wastefulness. The world is a polluted, hazardous wasteland, devoid of life or optimism. And amid this, Gaia must locate the spirits of deceased animals and free their essence, thereby releasing life into the world once more.

To do so, the game makes use of a pretty standard platforming control scheme: jump, double jump, dash, etc. While none of the movement or controls feel bad, there is definite room for improvement. Jumping feels floaty, dashing can sometimes be tricky to gauge distances with, and there's just a general lack of polish to your movement. This is compounded by the fact that much of the platforming requires the utmost precision, without which you'll face instant death. Many environments are bordered by a toxic sludge, with creeping tendrils that reach for Gaia anytime you get too near. But the game's definition of "too near" never feels consistent. What feels like a safe distance can result in getting snatched up, whereas other times, you'll be perfectly fine at a distance that feels dangerous. And yet, this is still more fun to deal with than the combat.

A number of humanoid creatures still roam the wastes, but they've been corrupted, poisoned by the world they once called home. You use Gaia's power to rescue them, attacking with various life-giving powers that bring some light to the darkness of the world, mostly through ranged and AOE attacks. Enemies attack on sight and often swarm you, but there are a number of issues. First and foremost, very few of the environments actually feel designed for combat. Tight corridors where the camera has a tough time keeping track of you is hardly an ideal place to spring 15 enemies on you, but the game does this regularly. There are more open areas in certain biomes — more on them later — but even here, enemies never feel deliberately placed. Arenas and combat encounters never feel crafted with that intention in mind. Instead, combat feels like an afterthought, like the game was designed with exploration in mind and a smattering of enemies were randomly placed to ensure there was enough action. The game feels like at one point it had no combat at all, which may well have been a better experience.

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In addition to combat encounters not being fun or gratifying, they bring with them performance issues. Every single time we had a combat encounter featuring more than three or four enemies, the frame rate would immediately and noticeably begin to plummet. In particularly hectic moments, the frames would drop into the single digits, and at least once per play session, combat slowed performance down so much that the game crashed. This contributes to making the combat feel slapdash, and it's especially frustrating as this gets in the way of the best elements of the game, chiefly environmental design and non-combat exploration.

The art direction is incredible. The game is littered with stunning, surreal environments, taking mundane everyday items from our lives and transforming them into dark, disturbing icons of our own excesses. The game is also surprisingly vibrant given the dour nature of things. Sunlight casts a welcoming, warm glow upon the grimy, abandoned buildings, helping create an exciting duality that works on an artistic as well as narrative level. Regions of the game are distinct from one another too, be it a sprawling urban nightmare of alleyways, a landfill that Gaia must manually clear a path through that threatens you at all moments with acid rain, or the deepest darkest depths of the ocean. Discovering the spirit animal at the end of each biome is rewarding, and the presentation of these final moments is striking, an area that concludes with a shark being a particular standout. If you can find these endpoints, that is.

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The game has a very open-ended structure to its level design. This is both a blessing and a curse, as it allows for you to approach puzzles or objectives freely, but the game doesn't do a good job of telegraphing where it wants you to go. Environmental cues to gently prod you in the right direction are present sometimes, but not nearly enough for our liking. It ends up making the game freeing to a fault, resulting in lots of doubling back from dead ends, or accidentally jumping to your death because what looked like the next leg of your journey was in fact nothing. Still, at least everything will look and sound nice while it happens.

In addition to the great art direction, the title has an exceptional soundtrack, evoking both the hopefulness of Gaia and the hopelessness of the world in equal measure. The general sound design is exceptional too, giving an uneasy, bassy hum to most environments, occasionally punctuated by the humming or singing of Gaia. While the game may fumble a number of elements, sound design is not one of them.


With lofty ambitions and some great elements, After Us lets itself down in as many ways as it triumphs. Gorgeous art direction and an admirable anti-pollution message aren't enough to make up for tedious combat, performance issues, and open-ended level design that plays things a little too loose. If you're itching for an experience like this, there are better options out there, at the very least until After Us' performance issues are addressed. There's the core of an incredible experience here, but it's just not ready yet.