When the term “Metroidvania” gets thrown around, the expectation of a quality title usually follows. It doesn’t matter if it’s an entry from its namesake or a well-loved and amazingly made entry from an indie developer. You really have to put your best foot forward. The amount of lofty expectations for this genre is a little surprising to those outside of the fanbase, and understandably so. However, most games in this genre tend to take the position of “come at the king and do our best not to miss.”
I find myself in between two camps with this approach. On one hand, multiple developers jockeying to be the best Metroidvania on the market are going to work for the benefit of genre fans and gamers in general. People seeking these kinds of games will more than likely find a solid selection in the genre at the very least. On the other hand, a byproduct of that will end up being that some developers will be willing to experiment with elements from other genres to set themselves apart in the space. Polarizing as that see purists, I personally don’t mind it when new elements are introduced in a way that meshes well with the gameplay.
That said, rookie developer Aurogon Shanghai decided to blend RPG elements in their Metroidvania with Afterimage. Not like mixing RPG elements with other genres is anything new, but having this kind of ambition for such a dev is surprising, to say the least. Published by Modus Games, Afterimage will release on Steam/PS4/PS5/Xbox One/Xbox Series X|S/Switch on April 25th, 2023. The PS5 version was played for this review.
Raze and Rebuild
Depending on which game you play, Metroidvanias can vary with the level of involvement the story has with the gameplay. Sometimes you’ll get a story unfolding in the middle of gameplay with nary a text box to read. Some will go full RPG and overwhelm you with pages and pages of dialogue and exposition to keep you invested. What some people might prefer is up to a matter of taste, but I personally find that flow is important when playing games like this. Symphony of the Night has cutscenes, but more often than not they were brief and were more of a glue holding the story together more than anything else.
This is where Afterimage draws its focus for the story content. Humanity is reduced to living in settlements after an apocalypse of sorts dubbed “The Razing,” and it seems that some unknown force was not content with letting humanity have a chance to rebuild and decided to attack what was left. Wanting to get to the bottom of this, protagonist Renee and her quippy companion Ifree set out in the land of Engardin to unravel who and what is behind all the chaos. In an ensuing battle very early on, she ends up defeated and able to return to the living.
What follows just feels like a pretty bog standard fantasy plot that seems to concern itself with being more of a glue that strings gameplay together more than anything else. Encountering mysterious folks that engage Renee is a common occurrence, as are getting the breadcrumbs that move things along. We also get the added angle of our protag being stricken with amnesia, which might be annoying to some but at least gives her some sort of motivation.
Sometimes, I find myself accepting that certain stories end up being less engaging than I expected them to be. Though with this being in the Metroidvania space, I think some of this is a deliberate decision so as to keep the gameplay front and center. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this story bland, but more often than not I found myself looking at the story as more of a gameplay enhancement than anything else.
Given the asking price and the genre, this might not be too much of an issue. But taken as a dev’s first stab in this genre, it makes sense to play it safe. The story may not appeal to everyone, but playing your cards close to the chest with a game like this makes sense in context. Even with all of that, I can’t help but wish that the story held my attention more than it did. But it is what it is.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the value of a well-established Metroidvania gameplay loop is why fans of the genre have such high expectations when a new title such as this throws its hat into the ring. While there are many reasons for them to keep coming back, most usually come back to the element of exploration as one of the major gameplay elements that they value most with this kind of experience. That and essentially navigating the space with little to no hand-holding. More casual players may balk at the prospect of wandering around the space with little guidance, but the reward of discovering that weapon or ability that will let you explore more of the game’s total environment is a reward unto itself for many hardcore fans.
While there are concessions to newer players like guidance to your destination through the story, you’re generally left to your own devices as you explore Engardin throughout your playthrough. The foundation of the genre is generally executed well enough. Right off the bat, Renee’s move set is pretty limited, which shouldn’t surprise genre fans. You might be starting off with a low-level weapon and a backdash, but exploring enough will yield new and better weapons. While the concept of finding weapons in the field is nothing particularly new, this is where the RPG elements of Afterimage start to shine through.
True to RPGs (and perhaps some Metroidvanias), weapons you’ll pick up in the field will have their own unique stats. The variety of weaponry is pretty diverse, which is kind of surprising for a game like this. Ranging from more quick-hit swords, high-damage broadswords, whips, and so on, the game will have you experimenting with what works best for your playstyle. You aren’t limited to using one weapon at a time, as you’re able to assign your preferred weapons as a primary and secondary setup based on your preferences. Later on, you’ll gain access to a spellbook. It’s really more of an extra attack option for some, but it’s a nice way to add a little more damage to your combos in the thick of things. More stats and some abilities can also be accessed via a skill tree, though many of these are gated by level.
With this level-based system, there will be times when you’re going to have to hit the grindstone to get to the appropriate level for the area you might find yourself in. As massive as the overall environment is, this can be a bit of a blessing and a curse. While grinding through normal combat is all fine and dandy, sometimes you’ll have to do enough of it where you’ll be at it for a good long while. Especially when you’re under-leveled. While I personally don’t mind grinding where it makes sense, sometimes it teeters over to being a tad too much and veers into padding territory at times. In a genre where a tight gameplay loop is crucial to the experience, grinding for long periods of time just doesn’t seem ideal at all.
Thankfully, the flow of combat is competent as well as fluid most of the time. It didn’t take me long to fall into a groove with the tight controls, but I found myself doing as much exploring as I could to find the best possible weaponry to help me progress. In fact, learning the gameplay flow is extremely crucial to progression. While it may delight the more hardcore fans of the genre, Afterimage fancies itself a very tough game. If you’re not attacking, evading, and memorizing patterns and placements, you’re gonna have a bad time. I’m stopping short of calling it Dark Souls levels of difficulty, because it’s not that level of unforgiving. But this game does not mess around in the slightest.
Some old-school elements of gameplay rear their heads, and you’re expected to get competent rather quickly. Let your guard down, and even the bog-standard enemies can wreck you into next week and drop the experience where you died in the process. While boss encounters of the mini and regular variety do exist (and there are a lot), more often than not they’ll pose the biggest challenge throughout. Given that this is where many traversal upgrades are gated, you have to come prepared and execute almost flawlessly to win the battle. With this tough-as-nails combat approach, the appeal is clearly aimed at the more hardcore of the bunch. I could have done without some off-screen blindsiding attack in some areas, though.
Even with it being more difficult than the average AAA game, this is still a Metroidvania. Once things start to open up as you obtain more abilities through progression, it starts to feel more like most of the other games in the genre. I initially found myself wishing I had certain abilities sooner, but I thankfully didn’t have to do an extensive amount of exploring to get the weapons or abilities I needed to progress in the story.
From a gameplay angle, Afterimage succeeds at being competent enough in design and mechanics to pique the interest of genre fans at the very least. I don’t see the difficulty or creature trappings of the genre being kind to more casual onlookers, but I can see those more hardcore fans giving this a shot to at least scratch that itch instead of replaying Symphony or Metroid Dread for the tenth time. Sure, some of these elements aren’t exactly the most unique. But I’ll take competent, established execution over trying to make some gameplay element work on shaky ground.
Drawn to Grace
I can always count on indie games to be willing to experiment with the visual presentation with a little more boldness, and Afterimage doesn’t really care to buck that trend in the slightest. Those familiar with titles like Hollow Knight might feel some comfort here with the hand-drawn presentation that Aurogon decided to use for this game. Honestly, the art direction was the biggest draw for me here. It may be best described as something in the vein of Odin Sphere with its dreamlike presentation.
While hand-drawn 2D art might nothing new in the indie or even AAA dev space (I’ve definitely covered several of those over the years), the fantasy setting Afterimage uses is rather unique in its density. There are times where it does affect the gameplay, but most of the time it’s just breathtaking to look at while you’re navigating Engardin. When it goes cutesy with enemy design, it does just enough to not go overboard. Though it occasionally has you groaning at the literal dad jokes it will occasionally throw at you. Though other foes are just detailed enough to fit the theme.
Environments range from wide-open skies, to dingy and detailed ruins, watery underground lairs, and so on. None of them feel especially overdone or half-assed, and I think that this is the game’s biggest strength. With the combat being as fluid as it is, the animation following suit shouldn’t surprise anyone. Frankly, the 2D presentation is usually a major reason why games like this find themselves on as many platforms as possible. They don’t take much modern horsepower to run, and perhaps in the case of the Switch, be a good compliment to the other 2D indies that flood that platform.
I didn’t find myself especially wowed by the audio presentation, though. Sometimes some games prefer to take a more “music as a background vibe” approach, and Afterimage definitely went in that direction here. There were times where lays hard into the whimsical angle that fantasy games have leaned into before, and I didn’t really mind it too much. That said, it didn’t really stand out too much for me either. If the aim was to be unobtrusive, it succeded. The fact that there’s voice acting here at all is surprising, but the overall acting in cutscenes feels just “good enough” for the most part. Renee’s delivery fits her vibe, though Ifree’s high-pitched quips occasionally get annoying. Various field characters do get lines, and they aren’t especially terrible.
Overall, the presentation is anchored by the visuals. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Some might find those same visuals to be busy, but I personally don’t mind a little bit of overindulgence that stays in its lane. Comparisons to its counterparts like Hollow Knight and the Ori series are bound to follow, but the overall art style and presentation is just unique enough to stand out from the crowd.
Staking a Claim
Having been around the Metroidvania block a little bit, I can understand why fans of the genre can and have been very particular about the kind of gameplay experience they expect from any one attempt to please their sensibilities. However, I personally don’t mind it when a game’s floor is just good enough to feel like I didn’t waste time or money on the experience either. Save for the visuals, nothing really stood out to me as especially outstanding or mind-blowing. While that may not be high praise for some, there’s a lot to like in Afterimage if you don’t mind a game like this being aggressively competent. I’ll take a solid attempt over doing too much to please the fans any day of the week.
So long as you don’t compare it to the more standout entries in the genre, Afterimage deserves some consideration from fans who devour this kind of experience regularly. The gameplay is best described as solid, the difficulty skewed towards those who like their games leaning towards From Software’s catalog, and a presentation that stands toe to toe with other indie games. Does it find itself as legendary as other games in the genre? Not really, but it’s at least worth your time if you’re looking for a new Metroidvania to devour this year.
~ Final Score: 7/10 ~
Review code provided by Modus Games for PS5. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image provided by Modus Games
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