What comes after humanity? It's a question in which, by its very nature, the answer will never be fully known by our kind, but that hasn't stopped video games, movies, and TV shows from offering a few guesses. After Us, the latest from Barcelona-based developer Piccolo Studio, throws us into one of those hypotheses – a bleak one at that – while also offering a solution in Gaia, a small girl with bright white hair that's tasked with bringing all life back into the world. What starts as an interesting conversation quickly turns into a long and one-sided monologue, as After Us's key takeaways are lost in what is, frankly, a boring experience.
The premise of After Us is a fascinating one, as it's basically the "nature is healing" meme made manifest. Gaia is the antidote to a world poisoned by its more prolific inhabitants, and we must fight through the muck to restore the natural balance of the planet. We do so through platforming challenges, the occasional battle against corrupted humans with blazing red eyes, and re-awakening the voices of the planet which are represented by animals spread out across the world.
I really should put "animals" in quotation marks there, as the key landmarks we must reach in order to awaken said voices are those animals' corpses. That's right, the main waypoints of this platforming adventure, our main objectives, are the long-dead remains of an eagle, a shark, and more. The first one we reach, the very first objective of this game, is a dead Dachshund whose spirit springs out of the cadaver once we reach it. Inspiring!
That's one major caveat about After Us: this is by no means an uplifting tale of how the world can be saved. This game is bleak; one wrapped up in cynicism and disdain for the irresponsible among us who treat the health of the Earth with contempt or apathy. Statuesque humans – the ones who don't attack you on sight,at least – are depicted as mindless drones, lining up for some unknown thing in a commercial district or digging through mounds of garbage that fills the countryside. The world is covered in a bubbling black goo that can pull Gaia in and kill her instantly. If this were a report card for how humanity is treating the Earth, the title screen would simply show a big fat F.
That said, I don't mind when a game tries to send a message. Games are a unique art form that allows storytellers to write their tales in a way that we players can experience them firsthand. If Piccolo Studio wants to send a message of "hey, fix the Earth or we're all dead, you jerks," then A) I agree with them, we should do that, and B) power to them for choosing this medium to deliver that message.
Where I have less patience, however, is when a game overstays its welcome whether its message is good or not. After Us is long. Too long, in fact. At the three-hour mark, I had only saved three of the eight main spirits, and yet I felt like I'd be playing for far longer than that. Why? Because After Us doesn't give me much to do while I'm trying to save the planet. I'm running, jumping, shooting a ball of light – either to collect other lesser Spirits or fight the aforementioned corrupted humans – that I can charge and release for an area-of-effect defensive maneuver… and that's it.
Each area of the world has its own look and feel, sure, but ultimately my actions are the same no matter where I am in the game. As I progressed through each one of them, I ultimately began to think one overarching thought: "How are we still in this section? Why haven't I found this spirit yet?" That's not the kind of feeling that should be engendered in any game, let alone one where you're trying to send a message.
Also, about that message: While I appreciate and agree with what Piccolo Studio is trying to say here, I also like a little bit of nuance in my storytelling. Making the world's checkpoints oil rigs that, when activated, see vines and trees overtaking them? Having one of the first "enemies" in the game be sentient floating plastic bags? It's as if the team was afraid of their messaging being lost, so they decided their metaphors should bash us over the head like a hammer.
I liked After Us in the end, I appreciated the story it told and the imagery it used to tell it (even if most of it was as blunt as blunt gets). However, what could have felt like a two-hour conversation is bloated into a ten-hour lecture series due to overly large worlds with very little to do in them. It seems like there was an internal struggle between "brevity in storytelling" or "filling the world with collectibles," though unfortunately, the solution they reached was far from the most efficient. If you can stomach the slog, there's a beautiful, important message to be heard in After Us. Unfortunately, and ironically, it's buried in excess.
Full disclosure: The product described was provided by PR for the purposes of this review. Reviewed on PlayStation 5.