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Preview: Afterimage

6 Feb 2023

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read more than a few of my reviews to know that I like games in the general metroidvania sub-category. That having been said, they are also still a genre I tend to be critical of; just like any other sort of game, it’s possible to hit the same basic notes better or worse. One of the games that definitely hit those notes well and uniquely was Hollow Knight, a game that was in parts a marriage between metroidvania and souls-like game, clearly aware that the latter genre owed quite a debt to the former and both could enhance one another.

Afterimage, then, is definitely driving itself into that same basic design space. And as this is a preview, it’s not yet entirely clear if it’s going to hit all of the targets it has set for itself, but it is possible to see how it’s doing so far. So is this the sort of thing that lovers of the aforementioned game should keep their eyes on? Or does it fall more into one of the disappointing middle spaces?

For reference, the PC version on Steam was played for this preview, but the game will launch on April 25th on PC, PlayStation 4 & 5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S. So, you know, basically any platform modern games can be played on.

Capital Letter Overload

Afterimage sets the stage for its game world solidly enough, if in a bit of familiar fashion. The world has decayed away, various proper nouns are gone, things are a mess, and no one knows where the sources of important stuff have gone. However, if you’re expecting a Souls-style mute protagonist, you don’t get that; right away we are introduced to Renee, an apparently amnesiac swordswoman and weird magic person, and her flying helper imp Ifree. I… think.

See, herein lies the problem. Renee and Ifree both converse as people who are familiar with the world and the basic elements of its presentation. That’s fine. But the story suffers a bit because the two of them never at any point seem to feel the need to explain to the player what is actually going on. A lot of proper nouns are used without adequate explanation, and this is compounded by Renee and Ifree themselves having things happen that they aren’t clear on… but still without ever explaining what’s going on to us as the viewer.

It’s clear what the general thrust of the plot is. Renee’s master has her soul trapped by a mysterious girl in a robe after the village she was staying in got attacked, and so she sets off in pursuit of the girl. But we don’t know anything about their relationship, or Renee’s history, or what Ifree even is aside from someone to converse with Renee. The world is not established before it’s disrupted, so we don’t have a sense of whatever is lost. Is Ifree a spirit? Can other people see Ifree? Is this normal? Abnormal? Can someone give me a primer on the state of the world before this?

The fact that this is a weird place Renee is not familiar with is fine; that’s a genre staple. The fact that there are people to talk with is fine, too. But the story keeps kind of progressing along without giving a sense of the base state of the world. It wants to feel ethereal but it keeps giving too much substance without giving us an arch sense of the world. To use my original comparison, no one ever explains all of what was going on with the Pale King to the Knight in Hollow Knight, but you’re ostensibly an outsider and you get explanations for what’s going on all throughout Hollownest.

Some of this may be a function of the game’s early state, and to be fair, the basic bones of the plot are not unclear. “A person did a thing, hunt them down” makes sense. But it feels less like the sort of vague and ethereal storytelling it seems to want and more like the game is just… missing an explanation or two along the way. That’s less encouraging.

Deliberate Exploration

Good gameplay cannot make a weak story strong, and good story cannot make weak gameplay compelling. However, solid gameplay can mean that any story issues are worth overriding, that you’re willing to roll with that weakness in exchange for a game you want to keep playing. And fortunately for Afterimage, that is what it delivers in this build quite nicely.

Renee starts with a very basic set of abilities – she can jump and attack. That’s it. Anyone who is familiar with metroidvania design will notice areas that are clearly meant to be reached with a dash, or a high-jump or double-jump, or wall climbing, or a slide or crawl or just turning into a ball because it’s good enough for Samus Aran. You get the idea. Defeating enemies gains experience and potential item drops.

What Renee will not get are health pickups; your health is refilled either by a limited-use healing ability (she starts with one charge) or healing potions that are solid heals but finite in supply. She can also gain new weapons from treasure chests that include upgrades to her basic sword or whole new kinds of weapons, sub-weapons, new armor and accessories, and so forth. And, of course, as you clear through various bosses you’ll learn new techniques, from dashing to… oh, you knew that already, that’s how these games work.

Anyhow, dying causes you to drop your experience where you died, as every level gains you points to specialize in a sprawling talent tree, and you have to run back to pick it up again. Thus do you explore the map, find where you can go, kill bosses as they show up and learn new abilities, and continue onward through the map.

It is all solid fundamental design, but it is also solid fundamental design. There are a lot of games where the pathing isn’t clear enough, or the boss fights are too easy or too hard, or you feel like you’re not getting new things quickly enough. Afterimage can kill you from random enemies or bosses, but the save points/respawn points feel placed right, and the looping design of several maps is particularly satisfying where you have to fall down instead of taking an obvious path you can’t reach, follow that to a boss, then take a path back to the original point and now you can reach that obvious path.

The one complaint I really have is that some of the special attack commands are not effectively explained, making the game a bit more vague than it needs to be. While the story likely cannot be extensively rewritten or improved at this point, some better tutorials and/or an index for how Renee’s moves all work is easy to add and would be valuable. It’s not universal, but some things just need a little more tutorial and guidance.

Blurry Echoes

You can probably see from the screenshots that Afterimage looks gorgeous. This is just as true in motion. Renee looks great as she runs, jumps, and attacks. The levels are all designed with a bespoke precision to the various tiles and decorative elements, making them instantly recognizable and easy to parse, and there were never moments where I found myself unclear on what was happening, what was hitting me, or where the paths were. Heck, even if I was unclear at certain points, the game did a good job of communicating it to me without a wrong jump meaning death.

The game’s music is solid and on the higher tier of game soundtracks, I feel; it tend to be ambient and unusually peaceful in the early areas, with Braid’s soundtrack coming to mind as an obvious point of comparison. Similarly, the voice acting is both abundant and solid; it’s not the best performance I’ve ever heard, but it felt like everyone was reading their lines with enthusiasm and with a genuine effort rather than just tossing people into voice booths without direction or context.

Oddly, the one area that I feel the game could use a little improvement on is the map. It’s not useless or anything, but it’s kind of fuzzy and it lacks waymarks for important things. That might be an early build thing, though; it’s just a notable weakness in what is otherwise a visually very solid product.

An Intriguing Image

If you’re like me, first of all, I’m really sorry about your imposter syndrome and anxiety issues. Those are rough, you know how it is. But I also imagine you’re waiting for Hollow Knight: Silksong to see if you can get another hit of what made the original Hollow Knight work so well. And that should be coming out… uh… well, it might be happening at some point! Maybe. I don’t know. They’re claiming this year!

But I think it’s worth keeping your eye on Afterimage in the process. I’m not saying that this is the same kind of game as Hollow Knight by any means, but they are of similar principles and design. If you liked that, you will probably like this. And while it’s hard to say with certainty that the whole game will live up to this preview? What I’ve seen so far has me looking forward to the full release in April.

Preview copy provided by Modus Games for purposes of evaluation. All screenshots courtesy Modus Games.