After Us immediately caught my eye in the PlayStation State of Play a few months ago. The aesthetic seemed to fall somewhere between Nier: Automata and INSIDE, two of my all time favorite games. Exploring the end of time as the earth collapses sounded like a slam dunk to me – until I got my hands on it. Unfortunately, After Us suffers from some of the worst 3D platforming I’ve ever experienced, extremely poor level design, constant frame rate drops and freezes, and environmental themes that are well-intentioned but puddle-deep at best.
After Us appears at first to be a very simple game, and although new mechanics become available every so often, it mostly stays that way. Players will take control of Gaia, who is for whatever reason taking the form of a young white girl with long white hair. She has been asleep for the duration of time and has reawakened at the end of the world. Humans have predictably destroyed the Earth, but the world presented in After Us is pretty much entirely built of metaphors and some of the most heavy-handed symbolism I’ve ever seen.
Gaia sets out to save a collection of nine animal spirits that need to be restored to the World Tree. Most of them are the traditional charismatic megafauna (sharks, whales, deer); But, credit to the developers for including the noble honey bee, who is probably the most important creature to the modern ecosystem. Gaia traverses the post-apocalyptic world that carries some admittedly interesting imagery, but there is a core issue that prevented me from truly enjoying a single minute of After Us – the platforming feels awful.
Gaia has the ability to run, double jump, and air dash from the beginning. Other abilities that quickly unlock include shooting a spirit orb forward, grinding on rails and wires, and releasing an area-of-effect nature explosion that grows trees and stuns enemies. I don’t think I’ve ever played a 3D platformer before that feels this floaty, and much of After Us requires precise platforming that the mechanics of the game refuse to allow. The controls feel sloppy and unresponsive, and this only leads to anger and frustration as you fall off a box you should have landed on if your character fell faster than a mote of dust.
The enemies, called Devourers, are humanoid slime creatures that seem to be made of petroleum oil, old tires, and discarded televisions. Yes, After Us is this heavy-handed at all times. They sometimes chase after Gaia, sometimes wait for her to approach, and are never, ever fun to fight. With how slippery and floaty your movement is, it’s impossible to feel like you have any control in these fights. You need to essentially shoot the spirit orb through each of them a couple of times, sometimes from specific angles. The fights are also badly paced, to the point I only had one combat encounter in the first three hours of After Us.
Each area comes with simple puzzles, and none of them are honestly that difficult to solve; the difficulty comes in trying to execute your puzzle solution because the controls are just that bad. I also am not sure why After Us is set up with a star chart that allows you to move around the world between animal areas in different ways, because it ultimately just led to confusion. Each animal level should have been one after another. This leads me to the level design issue.
There were over a dozen times in my playthrough that I had no idea where to go next. In some games, that’s great; I love exploring in open world settings and finding out organically what’s next. In After Us, there is no content other than running and jumping, and nowhere to go but forward. If you don’t tell me clearly, or indicate with environmental landmarks where forward is, I cannot go there.
I spent almost half an hour searching every nook and cranny of a sand level near the beginning before finding the way forward, because a trail of floating cars as platforms that led forward went nowhere. Turns out I had to jump on a car in the instant-death mud and wait for more cars to appear. Later, I spent another 30 minutes running up and down the same tower because there was nothing indicating that I was supposed to find a button to activate new platforms, nor where they were located. The landmarks, pathing, and geography of the levels in After Us are all constantly leading the player to dead ends. With no spoken or written words in the game, that becomes all the more important and all the more frustrating.
The entire world of After Us is absolutely drowning in its own excitement about what a bold statement it’s making, but the statement is “human bad, environment good” and it never gets more complex or more interesting than that. The last level, in fact, was focused on displaying the sins of humanity like soccer balls, airplanes, hamburgers, and of course the evil smart phones. Those damn kids and their phones! After Us is trying to push a good message, which is that we should consider the impacts of our actions on the natural world around us, but it so consistently beats you over the head with it without actually saying anything besides “humans bad” that I don’t see how it will end up making a real statement to anyone. Jump on drying pig corpses strapped to hooks; captivate Devourers by turning on the TV because TV is bad; fill the ocean back up with water because we polluted it so badly it’s just trash now; turn the oil pumps off because they have turned the humans into greed monsters. I get it. Animals are good, humans are bad. Now what?
There were also a lot of frame rate drops, particularly in the last few levels I played. I was playing at 60 FPS in 1440p, high settings on an RTX 2060 Super and Ryzen 5 3600. That should be plenty for a game like this, although the developers have not posted recommended PC specs. I was getting constant frame stutters and freezes, pretty much apropos of nothing. Having 10 enemies on screen at once didn’t seem to trigger it, nor did anything else. It just kind of happened. This is in addition to the absolutely damning fact that After Us has no mouse and keyboard controls. The Steam page has a warning as such, but just in case you don’t see it, please take note. Even if this game was fun, which it isn’t, I would absolutely not recommend the PC version of this game without MKB support. Imagine buying a PlayStation game, booting it up, and it telling you it didn’t support use of the DualSense and needed you to plug in a MKB.
I would forgive a lot of these frustrations if After Us was simply fun to play, but it isn’t. At no point did physically playing this game feel good. There are some beautiful landscapes to walk around, and spirit animals are always fun, but everything from the controls to the level design to the structure of the game is badly done. There is obviously some heart behind this, but it feels like a poor execution on every level. I care about our environmental impacts as much as anyone and believe we need to be responsible for how we as a species have created hardship for other species, but I also believe that yelling “you and everything you love are bad” at people does about as much to inspire environmental activism as hitting them over the head with a bag of carrots.
Nirav reviewed After Us on PC with a key provided by the publisher. After Us is available on Steam, Xbox Series X/S, and PlayStation 5.