Rise from your grave and punch skulls in indie metroidvania After Death

Imagine a game where you're playing as Juste Belmont's skeleton and you've got After Death

After Death is not an old game; it debuted on Steam on October 5th 2017. Aesthetically speaking, however, it's a throwback to the 80's metal era: the lead character is a skeleton who wakes up in a graveyard and discovers he must fight his way out of darkness by (re?)killing a series of skull-themed monsters. Destroying the monsters enables him to gain new powers which lets him access new areas and destroy new monsters, which puts After Death firmly in the Metroidvania category - my personal favorite.

For a spell it was hard to find quality Metroidvania games when Nintendo and Konami stopped making their portmanteau-eponymous (eportmantonymous?) series in the early 2000s, but with the rise of independent game makers and digital distribution we are now awash in exploratory action/adventure games. With the popularity of Metroidvanias soaring, After Death stands out in a crowded field thanks to its tone, setting and presentation. According to artist/designer Nolan Duluiyog, he and programmer Vincent Deraet decided on a theme first, one based on Nolan's personal phobias.

"We decided about the key word of the game: death. Then all the game has been constructed around that," Nolan told me via email. "I tried to find a story that could be stronger than usual. I was thinking 'what kind of story can affect me and create emotions?' so at some point, thinking about my own fears brought me this idea."

There's no shortage of "spooky" Metroidvanias, as both Metroid and Castlevania took direct inspiration from horror films, but the entire After Death experience is steeped in graveyards, skeletons, and mortality. Even though the world has some environmental variety, every corner and nearly every monster is made of bones. Death is also integral to the game's story which I found compelling as it took a few turns that I'd rather not spoil here.

Even more compelling than the story is the game's gripping soundtrack by Francisco Cerda. The music in After Death is not quite as retro as the game's Mega Drive-esque graphics, but it has enough synthesizer and guitar to compliment the overall mood. Nolan and Vincent both wore multiple hats to make After Death in their spare-time over the course of seven years while working full-time jobs, but "composer" wasn't one of them.

"We decided to check for a musician only when we were sure to release the game one day. And it was only one year or two before the release of the game. (before that, we were using musics from other games as templates)," Nolan said. The pair had set aside funds in order to hire a composer, and by the time they were ready to reach out, "the game was already in good shape...we had key words, screenshots, and description of the story for each situation / areas that would help to understand the type of music we wanted."

While Nolan and Vincent had planned ahead with the game's soundtrack, what they could not have planned for was the changing indie landscape on Steam. After Death was originally approved via Steam Greenlight in 2016, but by the time the game released that system had been replaced by Steam Direct and the floodgates were open. "Maybe if we had released the game 2 or 3 years before, it would have been completely different," Nolan said. "But now, there's something like 20 or more games released on Steam everyday."

While no person could possibly keep abreast of every single Steam release, After Death should have registered a large blip on my radar when it launched last year. Instead, I never heard of it until reading a profile on Hardcore Gaming 101. I asked Nolan about the audience's response to his work. "We've got mainly very positive feedbacks," he said, "but seems every-time, people tell us how hidden our game was." Still, he and Vincent continue to tweak After Death months after release, and are contemplating porting the game from Windows to other platforms. "As long as people like or love our game, this give us the motivation to make updates," he said.

At this time I can't say if I like or love After Death, but I can say this: it's the game I've played the most in 2018 by far because I've made it a point to find every upgrade and every (extremely well-hidden!) secret room. The music is on my iPhone and it's started working its way into my rotation of songs I whistle while at work. It's a game I think about a lot and while I'm well aware that there are an awful lot of Metroidvanias to choose from, I think Retronauts readers should give After Death a look.