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After Us is a vast, vibrant platformer with a muddled heart

Eco-critical path.

It's easy to be cynical about After Us, and I am indeed quite cynical about After Us. Created by Barcelona-based Piccolo, the studio behind Arise: A Simple Story, it's an ecologically themed platformer about a child goddess rescuing animal souls from ravaged cities full of petrified human beings. As I learned from Piccolo, the overall aim is to restore hope to discussions of environmental catastrophe, without waving away the hard facts. But the game couches all this in vague, "universal" terms, as though it were trying to avoid entangling itself in the very debates it wants to channel.

Based on a couple of hours with a pre-release build, it risks becoming a Game with a Message but not necessarily anything to say. Rather than specifics about the workings of phenomena such as climate change, After Us prefers to deal in heavy symbolism - the hub area is called the Ark, and your character's mum is a talking tree - and well-travelled eco-fable cliches such as oil oceans and burned-out cars. It amasses some historical context in the shape of recoverable memories of a bygone world, but the storytelling is largely wordless and somewhat cheesy. The protagonist, Gaia, certainly lays it on thick: she looks like she's permanently on the brink of crying her eyes out.

At worst, the game feels like it's just cashing in on the existential funk generated by the global ecological crisis. It also disagrees with itself a little at the level of mechanics. The jump-and-dash controls are well-wrought and feed into some engaging, Prince of Persia-esque traversal puzzles, but the "combat" oscillates fretfully between satisfying expectations for third-person action games and subverting them. There's no killing, strictly speaking, but there are corrupted humans or "devourers" you must "redeem" by lobbing your glowing heart at them. It's essentially the "friendliness pellets" joke from Undertale played straight.

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Get beyond its over-earnest flourishes and vibes-based eco-messaging, however, and there's more going on in After Us than topicality for topicality's sake. For starters, there's the act of singing to magically carpet the ground in plantlife. This is used to clear away pools of toxic gloop and knock back attackers, but it's more compelling simply as a means of playing with the geometry - turning toppled factory chimneys into flickering green boulders, and bag-strewn alleyways into verdant canyons.

It reminds me a little of cleaning up empty homes in Powerwash Simulator, but most of the flora you conjure evaporates swiftly. You can leave lasting marks by singing to golden roots, however, which spring up into towering trees - plumes of pure green in a world of poisonous greys and seeping flame. It makes me think of the narrow meadows that bloom surreptitiously between the lanes of British motorways.

There's also the ethereal nature of the creatures you "rescue". Each of the game's levels harbours one major animal soul or "vessel" plus a number of optional critters; once gathered, they'll repopulate both the Ark and the surrounding environments with spectral duplicates. The key point here is that you aren't saving the animals, but resurfacing their ghosts, which robs you provocatively of the catharsis Games with a Message often aim for.

Nor do you gain any abilities from the creatures you discover. Your capabilities at the start are the same at the end, which might be attractive if, like me, you're finding Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom's sheer onslaught of things to craft, collect and trade a bit draining. All you can do with the animals after restoring them is pet or sing to them in passing to trigger a cascade of answering calls, as though stroking a set of wind chimes. It tugs a little against the tendency in most games to portray nonhuman animals as resources to hoard and profit from, though I do fundamentally feel like I'm filling up a display cabinet with collectible figurines.

One of the creatures you'll rescue in After Us, a huge phantom dog.

I enjoyed the process of tracing these ghostly critters through the levels. The more mobile species often lure you towards secret paths and optional discoveries, and they leave the worlds of After Us interestingly marooned - not just a route to an objective, but not quite a living space. But what really grabs me about this game are the humans - architects of all this calamity, who form a mostly inanimate procession of giant, naked effigies from level entrance to exit.

They're hypnotic both for their grief and fear-stricken expressions and for their startling individuality. Character models repeat, but each mournful human relic is trapped in its own particular silent drama, and you could spend an hour or more wandering from one to the next, deciphering their attitudes and relationships. Some are being steadily engulfed by the wreckage, while others are perched on the high points, beholding the apocalyptic sunset (and discreetly indicating the next ledge in a platforming sequence). A few form family groups, while others are trying to take charge, pointing their comrades towards huge pieces of wasteland memorabilia, such as rusty fairground carousels.

It's not clear where they think they're going. Back to the past they once ruled over, perhaps? Or simply away from the future they've created? Either way, you must follow in their footsteps.