Humanity has succumbed to its own destruction, and Earth is decayed, broken and covered in oil. As the spirit of life, Gaia, you’ve been tasked by Mother to venture out into the treacherous world to recover the souls of the very last of Earth’s animals and return them to the Ark, to prepare for life on Earth to start anew. Piccolo, the folks behind the charming Arise: A Simple Story, have returned with the backing of Take-Two’s Private Division label to deliver an earnest and emotional post-humanity platformer in After Us.
When I first played the opening 90 minutes of After Us and wrote my preview, I was struck with its sombre beauty, the way it presented a dead and decaying world with a sense of awe and hope. Thankfully, none of that has changed across the entire 10 hours it took for me to see it through to completion (with a platinum trophy in tow), and in fact it managed to keep surprising and impressing me from beginning to end.
Where my initial reservations lay mostly with some occasionally-awkward platforming controls and unnecessary enemy encounters, After Us proves to shine brighter than any small missteps as it progresses, offering up unique beat after unique beat with every new area that Gaia explores. Those minor issues persist throughout, but it became easier to forgive the frequency of my misfired jumps or the slog of “combat” when I knew that I was working towards the next breathtaking sight or poignant experience around the corner.
After Us’ world is situated along an occasionally-branching path that circles back on itself, with the eight animal vessels resting at the end of as many forks, giving players a degree of freedom in the order in which they recover these dormant souls. Each major animal spirit lies in an area with its own theme, from power plants to skyrise cities, sunken cargo ships, factories and more. These areas all have a distinct visual identity and usually some kind of added twist on gameplay, making them feel incredibly distinct and keeping both the action and the aesthetic fresh throughout.
The bulk of what you’ll be doing in After Us is traversing these enormous landscapes, using jumps, dashes and wall runs to make your way across the surreal, floating platforms of broken nature or leftover junk from the last dregs of humanity. Occasionally you’ll be faced with environmental puzzles that play on the themes of the area, like TVs in the power plant location that you can teleport between by changing channels, or a giant mine with carts to manoeuvre by switching tracks and use as platforms.
It’s mostly simple stuff, but having a distinctly different vibe to gameplay – including some great underwater areas – to match the feel of each area works really well at keeping the game engaging all the way through.
Visually, After Us is an absolute delight. Given the subject matter, there’s brown and grey in abundance, but it serves as a great foretelling of the result of the endings of humanity and culture occurring in the same breath – the natural world strangled by a sea of identical concrete and metal structures, flatpack furniture and glass-faced rectangles. Conversely, it makes for the moments where natural beauty is allowed to shine through all the more spectacular, especially as you repopulate both the dead world and the lush, green Ark with the spirits of more than 100 unique animal species, or whenever you charge up your Spirit Burst and green life springs through every surface in your immediate vicinity.
The way that the leftover, hardened husks of what was seemingly the last of humanity pepper the landscapes in the positions they were in at The End Of All Things are an especially nice touch. Though they don’t move, there’s an implied movement to them that makes their final moments feel tangible and adds a degree of life to this lifeless world. Even the odd awkward “combat” moment against the oil-covered Devourers winds up feeling forgivable with the added context of their place in the ruins of Earth.
Rolling credits on After Us, I think it’ll stand to be one of the more memorable video game experiences of recent years, for me. It comes to a beautiful and bittersweet end, and if you really can’t let it go there’s opportunity to go back and clean up any remaining hidden collectibles after the fact. Interestingly, upon completing the game for the first time, each player is granted a special seed to plant in a shared, online garden. Each player is only ever given one, meaning everyone is working together to grow this garden one person/plant at a time, which feels quite special and is a really thoughtful, thematic reward for seeing the journey through.
After Us is a sombre, succinct and surreal adventure with a compelling and emotional tale of sacrifice and healing, tied together by simple platforming gameplay that evolves with each distinct and beautiful new environment. Some control complaints and unnecessary combat aside, it's a memorable journey worth taking.
Earnest, bittersweet story
Gorgeous, grim world tinged by natural beauty
Great use of thematically-appropriate gameplay twists
Thoughtful post-game features
Lots of annoying deaths thanks to finicky jumps.
Occasional, one-note combat could have been left on the cutting room floor.