Platform: PlayStation 5
In need of some directions
Even as a fan of the genre, I have found myself being more selective with my metroidvania choices these days. The genre is just over-flowing with titles now, and a lot of them tend to blend together on storefronts. Unless I hear good word of mouth, my justifications for playing one can depend on a multitude of factors: developer pedigree, gameplay gimmick, or story set-up, to name a few. For Afterimage, it wasn't any of those qualifiers, but rather the slick art style of the title. If the gameplay could match the art, then this could potentially be a standout of the genre.
Above everything else, the best facet of Afterimage is the gorgeous 2D artwork it sports. The animations of both main protagonist Renee and all the monsters she faces look fantastic. The assorted weapons you wield are all animated uniquely, as are the different spells that can be cast. There are no corners cut here. That same commitment to quality is seen in the enemies, which number over 170 different varieties. The basic grunts look great, and the bosses look even better. The world of Engardin houses a multitude of different lands, and they all have their own unique vibes as well. You'll come across a haunted town, a futuristic palace, and acrid desert in one stretch of movement. I loved getting to explore the map and seeing what kind of design the next major location would have.
The voice acting doesn't quite match the majesty of the visuals, though. Renee has the voice of your typical anime protagonist. Soft-spoken and generally confused by everything that has been going on around her. The more obnoxious character is Ifree, who is Renee's small companion. He's a bratty jerk with a grating voice. It's the only character I repeatedly fast-forwarded dialogue on. There are also other side characters you come across that all sound too generic to be memorable. The OST does fare better, but I still wouldn't call it too memorable. I'll give the title this, though: the soundtrack always manages to match the tone of the level you are in.
The confused state Renee is in does make sense, though, as she is dealing with a case of amnesia. The timing of this is unfortunate as well, as our heroine's teacher Aros has been killed, and someone has absconded with her soul. To do justice to her mentor, Renee must track down this soul, and give it the proper farewell it deserves. However, the world of Engardin holds many secrets and houses many foes, so this journey will not be easy. Along the way, she will need to work with others to not only complete her mission, but also find out more about her shrouded past.
Afterimage throws a lot of lore at you, and it can be tough to keep track of it all. Between the main quest, and the copious number of side-quests, there's a lot to learn about the world of the title. I actually found that the side-characters provide some of the more memorable story beats here. They can be tough to complete, but they are often worth seeing. With multiple endings, and new story information apparently found in New Game + mode, it will take players a while to find everything.
As a metroidvania, Afterimage features a massive world to explore. As you unlock new skills for Renee throughout the campaign, you'll be able to return to prior areas and uncover new items that were previously inaccessible. You may also stumble into an optional boss battle that will put your combat skills to test. Being able to uncover secrets has been one of the hallmarks of the genre that has appealed to me most, and that aspect is well represented here.
Although I love exploring, I do think that the game suffers from two major flaws in this department. The first, and most glaring to me, is the terrible lack of direction. Between the main mission and the assorted side-quests, you are given very little direction for where to go next. You may get the name of the location you are supposed to reach, but if you haven't been there already, it can be frustrating figuring out how to get there. There is a map of Engardin for you to use, and you are given the option to pin notifiers of specific characters or hubs. However, the map fills in as you explore, and you may not even learn the name of the area until you find specific items or notes. Objective markers aren't labeled on the map either. It's easy to get lost, and it's annoying to constantly backtrack in search of another way.
Compounding this is the fast travel system. There are two options; the first is using a potion to travel to any of the save points you have already unlocked. You can also fast travel from certain hubs without a potion, but you can't travel to all the locations from there. It's annoying to potentially get stranded at a dead end, and not be able to quickly leave because you are out of fast travel potions. If the game was either better at directing you, or had a better fast travel system, this wouldn't be nearly the issue it ends up being.
But even as you trudge through the huge levels, you at least get to enjoy the high quality of the combat. There are six different kinds of main weapons Renee can wield, and she can equip two of them at a time. Five of these weapons are bladed (one-handed sword, scythe, dual daggers, greatsword and katana) and the other kind are various whips. Some of them are traditional rope whips, while others contain modifiers such as thorns. As you progress through the game and uncover new areas, you'll discover different variants of these weapons with secondary effects such as lightning or bleeding. There are also specific attacks that can be unlocked for each weapon in the skill tree. You'll need to put points into your various stats (health, MP, damage, etc.) before you can unlock them though.
On top of your two main weapons, you can also equip a magic sub weapon. Unlike your two main weapons, magic attacks can only be used if you have enough MP available at the time. By the half-way point of the title, you are swimming in options for your load-out. As always, the key is to figure out something that is both intuitive for you to use, and capable of damaging the more powerful enemies.
Regardless of what weapon you end up using, the combat feels precise and snappy. I've been using the dual blades for their speed, and the whip for its length, and have found it very easy to alternate between the two as I see fit. Your strikes are mostly limited to single hits, with more powerful attacks requiring a combination of analog stick movement and button press. Which is great because the difficulty of the game necessitates having total control. The boss battles, some of which are optional to be fair, require you to always focus and pay attention. Even the minor enemies you come across can take Renee out in a few hits if you aren't careful. The number of times I got wasted by undead calvary soldiers or sentient mushroom creatures is too high to count. My issues with the map and lack of guidance arise again here, as you can theoretically stumble into an area of the game you are way under-leveled for. For better or worse, this is a game that does not pull its punches.
Afterimage is a large, sprawling adventure that probably would have been best served with some trims here and there. The massive world of Engardin offers plenty to discover, but the lack of proper direction makes navigating it a pain. Getting railroaded by dead ends and one-way walls is no fun, and the frustration is only compounded by an annoying fast travel system. The game looks fantastic, and the combat's large arsenal of weaponry allows you to approach battle from several directions. If you are willing to put in the work, there's entertainment to be had, but it's hard to fully recommend this in what is already a genre filled with fantastic titles readily available.