EA SCOUT the last line of defense for buying on Steam's Early Access
by Samuel Corey
previewed on PC
Armageddon is Beautiful
There is no setting more cliché in video games than the post-apocalypse. I don't know how many titles I've slogged through where the world was an eradicated hellscape of endless deserts and Mad Max cosplayers. It's so overdone that Far Cry: New Dawn can plausibly claim to be original just by covering the whole mess with magenta flowers.
So, it's refreshing when Afterimage presents us with a world that is collapsing in the wake of its deity's departure and makes it a world of stunning beauty. Each area of the game features unique and beautiful hand-drawn environments that compare favorably with a big-budget animated film. There is less of a unifying theme here than in something like Hollow Knight (which is just as beautiful and much more consistent) but to call Afterimage anything less than gorgeous wouldn't be doing the game justice.
Likewise, the characters who live in this world are just as striking, each boasting an alarmingly detailed sprite with even more impressive character portraits that are employed for dialogue scenes. Indeed, the detail in the character model may be a bit too much, as it is no doubt the reason why their animations are a bit choppy and unsatisfying at times. Still, a few awkward animations do little to detract from the beauty on display here.
In Media Res
When setting a story in a world other than our own, you run into the inescapable problem that the audience will not instinctively understand the differences between this fantasy world and the one they live in. How is an electrician from Brooklyn supposed to immediately understand that geomancers need to use blood rituals to cast their spells? Or that space travel is only possible through the power of astral projection? There are two main ways to solve this problem: you can either contrive a reason for your protagonist to be unfamiliar with the rules of this alien world so he or she can function as a proxy viewpoint for the audience (see every isekai ever), or you can simply throw the audience into the thick of things and tell them to figure things out as they go.
I am a big fan of the latter approach, but I can understand why it doesn't get used very often. Not only does it demand a considerable cognitive investment from the audience, but it also requires that the story give its audience something else to focus on when they are still baffled by the fundamental rules of the world. It's rather difficult for a film or a novel to pull this trick off, but a game can always rely on its primary game-play loop to keep players engaged while they gradually learn the rules of the setting and the stakes of the story.
Indeed, Afterimage may go a bit too far in that direction. By the end of the preview, I had only the faintest understanding of the rules of the setting or even the goals of my protagonist. An impressive feat, in a game that is fully voiced and has frequent dialogue sequences.
One Hell of a Fight
If you have played a fair number of Metroidvanias before, then it's doubtful that the preview for Afterimage will give you much trouble. Indeed, after a while, I began to despair that the game was too easy to recommend. Most enemies have only one or two attacks, and all are so clearly telegraphed that you can only really get hit through your own stupidity. The regular enemies only become threatening when you engage a particularly spongy enemy in a confined space that makes it difficult to manoeuvre and dodge.
Just as I was beginning to give up hope, Afterimage dropped a tough-but-fair boss right across my lap. This boss does everything right. She has an array of attacks, all of which can be avoided if you're careful but will mercilessly punish you if you aren't. Halfway through the fight, by which point you should have mastered her basic attacks, she switches things up with new moves and subtle variations on her earlier attacks. It is everything you want from a first boss fight, and I found myself dying multiple times to the boss but not feeling frustrated in the slightest.
I can only hope that later bosses in the game will live up to this high standard.
Diamond in the Rough
On the whole, Afterimage is an extremely high-quality game, with gorgeous visuals, tight controls, and an intuitive interface. However, I would be lying if I said the preview code was fully polished. The most glaring issue I noticed was that some of the unlockable skills cannot be used at present. This is rather a disappointment when I saved up my skill points for the dashing attack, only to try to use it for ten minutes before I concluded I'm either less coordinated than I thought or that the attack simply hasn't been added to the preview.
There are also some issues that I assume must be a result of a dodgy translation. Why, for instance, does the map screen feature a button prompt labelled "Focus42"? Indeed, even the game's title "Afterimage" instead of the more natural "After Image" suggests that there are more than a few translation hiccups. None of these issues is a huge deal in and of itself. The game does not have any bugs (that I encountered anyway) that render it unplayable or made it crash. So that makes this indie game by an all-but-unknown Chinese developer far more stable than most AAA releases.
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There are no guarantees - but we'd bet our own money on this one. If you're going to take a chance with yours, odds are good this one will deliver.