Interactive fiction occupies a strange space in the video game scene. At one end, multi-million dollar projects like Detroit: Become Human dazzle players with state of the art graphics and heartfelt motion-capture performances. On the other end, creators develop text adventures or visual novels, the only cost involved the many hours of hard work required to complete these titles. With the demise of Telltale Games, little middle ground exists between these two approaches to modern storytelling, limiting the types of stories that are told. Developer GuraShop attempts to fill this void with Only After, a mystery title on a miserly budget. Although ambition is clearly high for the project, severe technical issues and inconsistent writing leave the game a disappointing venture. Mild spoilers below.
Detective Michael Grady is stumped. Teenage girl Julie has gone missing in a small town, and her boyfriend David has amnesia, as he was found beaten and bruised in a forest. Having no luck questioning David himself, Michael calls in psychiatrist Judy Williams for assistance in interrogating David, who helps him restore his shattered memories. As David’s memory slowly reforms, the events of the past few days return to him, building piece by piece to Julie’s sudden disappearance.
Gameplay is comprised of the player traversing a collection of David’s memories, skipping back and forth between different time periods as David recalls different events. Wandering through the world, he will collect objects and talk with Julie, but the main goal of gameplay is to make decisions.
Only After positions itself as a game based on choice. As the player journeys through David’s scattered memories, they will be given many options: Should he answer a call from Julie, or ignore it? Does he crawl through a suspicious-looking pipe, or find another way around? Investigate suspicious footprints, or go back to sleep? Despite the seemingly plentiful pathways, however, only a single binary choice right at the end of the game actually makes a difference. The title was played through twice with opposing choices made on each run, and how little impact the choices made on the world is disappointing. One could argue that choice in these games is often largely an illusion, but the smoke and mirrors is usually more gracefully handled than this blatant disregard for player choice. Not using the decisions is also a waste of interesting data; these choices could have been used to influence the relationship between David and Julie, or determine what clues the detective and psychiatrist are able to find, but most choices in the game are pointless.
Some inflexibility in the narrative can be forgiven if the story is engaging, but the pacing in Only After is incredibly off. The first 70 percent of the game has the characters wandering around bland environments being unpleasant to each other. David is as dumb as a bag of rocks, and Julie is almost cartoonishly mean. They both desperately need more character development. The detective and psychiatrist are also under-utilised, functioning only as a simple prompt for David’s thoughts. For a narrative game, dialogue is quite sparse, with a few lines spoken for each scene. Voice actors are expensive, but even some extra unvoiced dialogue would have gone a long way.
The last 30 percent of the game, however, has quite a clever twist, one that made the ending a lot more enjoyable than the journey to get there; it gives context to David’s dimness, and the lack of chemistry between the lead characters makes sense. This ending is quite an abrupt change of pace, however, and could have been better seeded through the game to make the opening hours more engaging. In popular stories that rely heavily on their twists, such as The Sixth Sense or Fight Club, lots of little clues to the truth are spread throughout: kernels that become obvious upon a second viewing. Apart from David’s obsession with a spoon, no such foreshadowing is present. The weaknesses of the game engine could be used as a strength for this sort of hinting: one person walking through a wall is just a glitch, but several would create the sense that not all is as it seems.
Only After is further hampered by buggy and unreliable controls. The mouselook sensitivity is far too high and cannot be adjusted. Even changing the option in Windows itself made no difference to this nausea-inducing setting. Gamepad controls fare a bit better, but on occasion the game will forget that a gamepad is being used, prompting the player to press ‘Z’ or ‘C’ to make a choice. If choices actually mattered, this would be a big problem since the player does not know what option they are choosing. On one occasion, the controls also seemed to be remapped mid-game, swapping the function of the B and Y buttons.
Apart from bugginess, the controls also simply feel unpleasant to manipulate. One cannot pause during cutscenes, and only autosaves are available, which is highly inconvenient if the player needs to step away. In game, interacting with objects is done by holding down a button for a few seconds, and then taking action with a different button press. This prolonged holding down of the button is completely pointless, and only serves to pad out the length of the game, much like the terrible walking sections of gameplay.
In between inane choices, David will spend a lot of time wandering around. The environments are big and empty, and mostly serve no purpose. The forest is an important inclusion, since it is where Julie disappears, but the game had no need to show David walking through the deserted bus depot to meet up with Julie or wandering around the bland city to find something to eat. These scenes do not add character, involve interesting gameplay, or progress the story. In a short game, like this roughly four-hour experience, every second matters. To have a tightly-paced two- or three-hour experience would have been highly preferable, rather than one that deliberately wastes the player’s time.
The visuals of Only After are basic, but do what they can with a limited budget. Everything looks a bit dated, harkening back to the late 2000s design philosophy of brown, brown, brown. Turning on vertical sync is a must, as otherwise the game suffers from severe screen tearing. The voice acting is a touch melodramatic, but is generally well-executed. Background music is a highlight, with the soft piano and classical guitar creating a mysterious atmosphere.
Only After has a great deal of potential, but fumbles in the execution of its ideas. Featuring a decision-heavy gameplay when the choices do not matter, a clever ending with very little build-up, and the worst control scheme of 2019, Only After sabotages itself at every turn.
Reviewed on PC.