In After Us, I'm standing in the looming shadow of a naked, petrified human being whose resting expression is one of despair. With both feet planted on the ground, one rigid arm reaches up to the sky, while the other hangs by her side. To her left, another statuette woman with a smaller frame holds both hands aloft; and to her right, a man rests on his knees with an arm across his chest. It's unclear at this stage what happened before things turned to shit here, but I suspect the industrial oil well-aping monolith these stony figures have gathered around is a metaphor for the downfall of society.
As Gaia, a pint-sized fairy-like protagonist whose footsteps leave a trail of colorful flowers against this surrealist world's endless grays, I skirt around the base of the statues as disused plastic bags rain down from above like artillery fire. The world as we once knew it has gone to hell in a handbasket, it seems, and it's up to Gaia to breathe new life back into it.
On the up
Doing so involves a lot of meticulous platforming. Within the first half hour of my time with After Us, I'd learned to jump, double-jump, float, sprint, and dash in mid-air. I learned a neat skill named 'Burst of Life', which flooded the immediate vicinity with grass and plants in order to access new areas; and I learned to 'Sing', a process that let me track down the nearest spirit orb, and restore one species of wildlife to the dying world at a time. From insects to sea creatures, dogs and cats, lizards and birds, and more, working your way around After Us' post-apocalyptic landscapes, reintroducing life as you go, is the name of the game. In doing so, you'll dodge knife-edge pitfalls, environmental traps such as swinging cranes, and the omnipresent threat of some weird, snapping tentacle-like organisms named Devourers that lurk beneath the surface of bubbling toxic sludge.
It's all great fun, and as you trek deeper into this broken hellscape, the world really begins to open up. After reaching the Suburbs district, for example, I was given the freedom to capture each spirit orb in any order I wanted, and so I decided to wander off the beaten path. I then got lost in a building site that backed onto a graffitied alleyway, and after spending 10 or so minutes wondering how the hell to get over a tall chain link fence that blocked my route, I realized a quick Burst of Life let me grow towering trees from the earth that I could use to vault my obstacle. After Us is full of these fluid part-mental, part-physical quandaries, and like any game of this ilk worth its salt, the satisfaction gleaned from overcoming each conundrum is second to none.
Throughout all of this, After Us is firm in its message: this world is one that's been destroyed by human impact. At times, the signposting of this can be a little on the nose – at one point, I uncovered individual garage lock-ups filled with oil drums, clothes mannequins, and meat freezers, which I assume is a dig at the carbon footprint forced on the planet by these industries in the real world – but the game's surrealist approach ensures exploration and discovery never feels arbitrary. Not long after my chain link fence debacle, for example, I freed the soul of an adorable sausage dog, which instantly made all that banging my head against the wall worthwhile. After this, I was transported back to Mother's Ark: a luscious Garden of Eden-esque hub where you can check your progress, choose which area you'd like to fast travel to next, and, ultimately, set off to save the next species of animal in turn.
Through crumbling cities, desolate forests, dry seabeds, and polluted skies to name but some of the game's locations, After Us promises to keep us guessing when it arrives later this month. Its isolated, sand-swept plains reminded me of Journey, while its disparate, broken world echoes Playdead's award-winning indie hit Inside. Its death-defying, run-the-gamut gauntlets, and learn-by-dying nature have a distinct Dark Souls quality to them too; and let's not forget this is the indirect follow-up to the wonderful Arise: A Simple Story. If After Us wasn't on your radar before, it should be now ahead of its May 23 arrival on PS5, Xbox Series X, and PC.
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