Piccolo Studio Lights a Path in the Dark
Imagine a world no longer occupied by humans, yet still impacted by the harmful decisions made in the pursuit of progress – the destroyed ecosystems, extinct species, and ghostly constructions that echoed the once flourishing civilization. And, after the damage was thought to have dealt its final blow, a mysterious girl is gifted the power to restore the decaying environment around her in the style of a 3D platformer. Based on the first 90 minutes Today Technology was allowed to play, Piccolo Studio’s After Us is exactly that: a gorgeous platforming adventure with a seemingly strong narrative backbone that will lean into some direct, and not so direct, environmental motifs.
At the start, players will be introduced to a young girl called Gaia as she gazes upon a colorful field before being quickly thrown into a dark, grim world that only she can save. After a brief cinematic, there is an exchange between her and Mother, a godly being seemingly trying to save the planet, which sheds some light on the state of the world and Gaia’s role in saving it.
The early hours of After Us seek to establish a compelling story, but the game does not do this through heavy dialogue or lengthy narration. Instead, the game allows its level-design and beautiful environments to fill in the missing gaps in the narrative. From just the two to three areas available to explore in the preview, the game was able to communicate potential theories on what had happened to the lost civilization, while evoking emotions of loss and hope through Gaia’s interactions within its post-apocalyptic levels.
This is mostly done by the objects Gaia will use to cross the desolate landscape, as well as the ambient soundtrack that plays eerily in the background. While the first few levels available to complete featured a similar aesthetic, the evolution from jumping from abandoned cars and bridges to using old carousels and dead bodies to progress made the entirety of the experience immersive.
The actual moment-to-moment gameplay in the beginning stages of After Us features Gaia running through these mostly black-and-white terrains trying to repair what she can. There is a brief tutorial that explains how to traverse from space to space, but the player is set free to explore the linear world early on.
Gaia will quickly gain access to additional moves, such as dashing and wall-running, as the player progresses through the first hour. Within the initial locations are spirits from extinct animals that can be saved by using Gaia’s heart. This can be done by throwing her heart to reach the dead animal’s spirit, which results in some fascinating puzzles to solve.
The player will not only have to use Gaia’s heart to restore lost spirits, but also to clear the path to reach them. Beyond the broken machinery featured in the early levels is the slime that taints the path Gaia needs to use to access certain locations. To clear this slime, she must use her heart to restore contaminated areas to their once-prosperous state. This adds a bit of strategy when pursuing every spirit, while interlinking the player’s actions and elements of the story’s theme.
At the end of each level will be a Vessel for Gaia to also restore, the first of which is an extinct species of dog. Once this is completed, the player will have access to travel to the Ark (the main hub) or continue on their journey to find more Vessels. The developers highlighted that once the player reaches this point, they have some freedom to choose between which Vessels they want to restore next.
While After Us seems a predominantly linear experience, the following Vessel’s environment was not only visually different, but required Gaia to find her way along a much more open space. This allows room for potential errors when navigating, and the exploration of potential pathways to take. Both can be viewed as positive or negative, as there were a few times that the next path to follow was not clear and required some trial and error to find the right zip line to cross.
Knowing the full amount of diversity between each Vessel’s location will have to wait until the game’s full release, but the few opening areas are quite promising. The actual traversal between platforms is another element that Piccolo Studio has seemingly gotten right. While the mechanics are simple, the dense surroundings seeping with stories to tell kept each movement forward exciting.
There are also enemies that eventually appear after the first Vessel’s location. These can be small environmental hazards, such as plastic bags floating in the storm, or stronger enemies referred to as Devourers. Devourers are seemingly corrupt souls of people who have already passed on. Gaia can once again use her heart to restore the Devourers’ spirit.
The combat encounters were brief and do not seem to be a major focus of the experience, which is reinforced by the limited mechanics that only consist of a dodge and an attack. However, this could easily change once the player progresses further into the story. An intriguing element of combat is that the player will receive certain memories once defeating a Devourer. Each memory is displayed in a sketched frame, and conveys a story of specific people before the degradation of the planet took place.
It’s examples like this that truly made this world feel connected with each of its surrounding counterparts. After Us’ dedication to intertwining its narrative and themes into the level-designs and brief moments of action create a cohesive and emotional introduction to its world. Most importantly, Piccolo Studio has developed a 3D platformer with a unique and clear identity.
Even if some of the mechanics may be simple in the early hours, its surrounding elements promise a captivating experience. Whether it be the line of flourishing grass that follows Gaia’s every step, the frozen bodies left behind by parents carrying their children, or using Gaia’s heart to save her enemies: After Us has something special to say.
After Us releases May 23, 2023 for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. Today Technology was provided with a PC code for this preview.