After Us Review - Gaia's Ark
It took me coming back to After Us for my brain to begin to process it, to understand the trick behind its initial je ne sais quoi. The session the night before had been a dizzying trip through fever-dream landscapes that seemed to just float in their own bubbles of existence; an exercise in pushing forwards out of a desire to see another ethereal space whale after being teased with one in very opening moments.
It may bear clarifying that it wasn’t even a space whale, not really: it was a spirit one. Or perhaps it might be better described as a ghost whale, considering the post-apocalyptic tone that After Us wastes little time in becoming soaked in. This particular tone, matched with an initial appearance of being a third-person humanoid action adventure game, is perhaps what made initial impressions borderline misleading. The short, back-of-the-box descriptor should probably list After Us as a platformer.
When more words are permitted, when genre-shorthand is allowed to be stretched and broken and fragmented into tiny sub-genres, however, After Us is an… inverse? It’s a cumulation of mechanics and ideas seen many times before, shuffled and in many cases turned on their heads. Players take control of Gaia, a personification – although notably not the mother – of the Earth, presented here as a white-haired pixie of a woman, caked in an almost grotesque skin-suit that evokes milky clay. She comes equipped with a suite of mechanics in line with what is expected from an explorative platform game: generously jumping abilities that don’t even always require ground to be beneath one’s feet, an air dash to further help this semi-flight, multi-directional wall running when the surface permits it, and feet with calluses so developed that they can grind across myriad of different wires in the sky.
And yet, for all of the familiar button-presses in the world, After Us unquestionably manages to feel different.
What became clearer after my initial sitting was that it’s the dressing, the context, that sets After Us apart. A good portion of this can be attributed to the gleefully surreal imagery and logic that powers its level design and layouts. But what really hammers this home is how players are basically tricked into perceiving what should be old and tired as shiny and new. And to After Us’s absolute credit, this largely works. The easiest example comes early on: Gaia bears witness to one of several particularly egregious perversions of nature’s gifts. Understandably, her face fills with rage, energy builds up inside of her, and then she lets loose with what is essentially a charged area-of-attack explosion that… makes grass grow.
Life instead of death, swaying green in place of smouldering greys. Mechanically, the trick could be a thousand years old, but the simple visual feat of draping any area one pleases in large blades of grass holds its own right until the credits scroll.
Unsurprisingly, this ability is afterwards mapped to the controller, and players gain what is perhaps the most spectacular tool in Gaia’s arsenal – an attack that is literally called burst of life. It’s appropriate then, perhaps, that the other main mechanic involves Gaia throwing her actual, glowing blue heart out into the world; her hands are kept clean from the action entirely, and the metaphor of her heart doing all of the work would feel agonised were it not so mechanically sound much of the time.
And so continues a game wherein mankind – trapped by its own self-inflicted loop of consumption and thereby bestowed with the title of Devourers by Gaia’s mother – is the antagonist that was, where saving the spirits of animals comes first, and where single-use plastics and crude oil and buzz-saws present the requisite challenges to reflexes and gates to progress.
Obstacles are important. After Us isn’t entirely without assailants in need of dispatching (wherein Gaia’s heart is used as a sort of smart-boomerang that ‘redeems’ the murky black humanoid monsters that chase her), but just as concern that combat is beginning to become a crutch in lieu of more interesting ideas starts to set it, such confrontations thin out and the design shifts to focus on a new way to use a different mechanic.
Most of those mechanics will help Gaia get places, and it eventually becomes clear that, mechanically, After Us is a game about manoeuvring – of jumping over obstacles and running along walls, of being flung through the sky after relenting a leap of faith and of rail-grinding to new islands. While it can’t compare with huge studio productions for finer polish: those smaller, contextual animation details, developer Piccolo has made the most of what output it can manage, and the way that Gaia spreads her arms wide while sprinting evokes a childlike appreciation of running across open fields with the wind in your face. And just in case you’ve somehow forgotten already: she can even summon her own grass.
It’s a shame, then, that evocation of joy doesn’t really seep far past this detail. The worlds – different, selectable paths themed around areas such as malls, factories and even the decrepit remains of national parks – are oftentimes beautiful and bustling with visual activity, but everything is nonetheless soaked in sullen moodiness. The audio design makes effective use of the lower range, and it lives in a world of alien thrums and guttural rumbles that does a fine job of conveying the eerie bleakness of a world that humans left dead and hollowed out as they disappeared themselves from existence. But there are still small victories in Gaia’s journey, and yet there’s no fanfare – no sparkle of piano keys, no brilliance of violins – to celebrate them.
After Us’s biggest problem isn’t that it forgets about the fun. This can’t possibly be the case: while it has an unfortunate habit of stretching otherwise cool and creative ideas out beyond their welcome, its linear path structure is balanced well with its level design in a way that fully – and with almost perfect success – trusts players to find their way without waypoints or heavy-handed colour coding. Colourful butterflies lead the way to collectables, but meaningful progress must be earned. The problem is that it has devoted itself to hopelessness to such an extent that it has somehow sculpted the fun while surgically peeling away the joy.
There are potential cracks for hope to live almost everywhere. Throughout this journey, Gaia will restore greenery – typically cursed by accelerated transience, but occasionally blessed with the stubborn will of life –, redeem humans, rescue the spirits of animals and overcome considerable challenges. All of this comes at the cost of her apparent health, and it’s hard sometimes to grasp as to why she keeps pushing forward beyond the simple fact that progressing to the next point of interest is something of the ultimate videogame mcguffin, and that After Us hasn’t managed to invert that particular one. There are the flames of small victories littered throughout every area, but After Us seems blind to the successes and just sees the litter.
It’s difficult to say if this apparent joylessness is by design or resource necessity. The aforementioned audio remains rigidly fixed, not even shifting meaningfully to mark a combat encounter (something that gives a kind of survival horror vibe), and collectables in the form of memories attempt to humanise the, well… the humans. It feels like there’s a trick missed by painting the entirety of humanity as Devourers, by ignoring the breakneck ups and downs made possible by acknowledging that there are plenty of people – the developers, presumably, very much included – who advocate for sustainability and betterment, and that there are very real and clear villains responsible for the trajectory towards the disaster that After Us depicts the aftermath of.
Gaia’s mother, then, comes off as something of an unreliable narrator: omnipresent and knowledgeable, but also bitter and shortsighted. Although it is difficult not to be empathetic towards her cynicism in the grand scheme of things, and much of the time it is inconsistency that bestows After Us with some of its greatest moments of visual splendour – which says a lot, because there is no shortage of breathtaking moments and vistas.
After Us plays fast and loose with scale, and the results almost always pay off. Gaia herself will one moment appear the appropriate size for the carcass of an old automobile, while being dwarfed by a fossilised precession of mindless Devourers the next; she will freely run through grates that would present a challenge for a child one moment, then appear appropriately to scale next to a tree moments later. Or not. Some trees are huge. Everything is huge. After Us is far more concerned with the impact of scale than it is keeping things consistent, and it absolutely, unquestionably gets away with it. The impact of seeing Gaia rendered so small against this polluted but eerily beautiful world never runs dry, although it’s worth noting that screen size may well matter. That formerly monstrous 40-inch TV may no longer cut it.
The only dark side of such playful scale is that it highlights the often bizarrely sticky nature of the character control. Considering how high Gaia can jump, how easily she can gently float in the air, how diminutive she feels in stature, she is weirdly heavy to move around. It creates a dissonance – albeit one that was alleviated slightly by a performance-assisting patch that landed mid-review – between what is being presented, and what is being felt. Gaia herself often appears to enjoy the experience of simply running around, and it’s a considerable blow that this isn’t really shared with the player. As mentioned, After Us can fairly be described as a fun game, but joyous is another story.
There are few games that manage the smoke-and-mirror trick of feeling original while being equally as derivative as other titles quite as well as After Us does. A part of this is a stubborn and admirable commitment of older-school level design, and the lack of hand-holding that comes with it, but the real success serves as a reminder of the power of aesthetics. Sound and visuals still remain lost in the quagmire of being thought of as technical elements, and After Us understands the shortsightedness of this better than most. It creates a texture that sets it apart, that fundamentally defines what it feels like to play the game. This is its greatest strength, and also its greatest weakness. The push-pull of its mood is effective and powerful and sadly too unbalanced. After Us isn’t shy about its message, and it wants its players to feel it. But in its efforts to make us feel remorse about a very real problem, it mostly fails to give notes about or nods towards potential solutions.
After Us was reviewed on the PS5 with code kindly supplied by the publisher.