‘Surviving The Aftermath’ review: exciting cataclysms, but not much else

It’s the end of the world as you know it, as you know it

It’s always enthralling when a colony management sim convinces you to feel empathy for the individual ant-sized workers milling back and forth between your buildings and resources. Surviving The Aftermath only manages it rarely, but there’s something undeniably vivid about watching a tiny comet land on a colonist’s head on their route back from berry picking, only to witness them stoically hoof it to the nearest medical tent for some ibuprofen and a belly rub.

Those comets are engulfed in a purple glow that gestures at a greater mystery behind the game’s otherwise rote post-apocalypse. A brilliant hue that mirrors the hints of brilliance in the game at large. But, like all celestial bodies plummeting to meet the earth, these fragments are eventually dulled, their fiery manes reduced to a grey-brown fug. It’s that same fug you’ll need to wade through to get to the interesting parts.

That’s not to say Aftermath’s rusty gears don’t occasionally churn out some procedural magic. After my first experience of a devastating pandemic that left a chunk of my population dying of thirst, I got paranoid and started dedicating a sizable patch of real estate to clean water storage. A few months later, we were hit by a blistering heatwave. Scorched and dry, our water reserves dwindled. When we finally saw the end of it, the colony welcomed a baby girl into this strange new world we found ourselves in. The game named her Savannah.

Such pandemics are one of a few different disasters that Aftermath will periodically jam in your clockwork colony to keep you on your frostbitten, possibly irradiated toes. Like a Two Point Hospital outbreak or (to be generous to Aftermath) a Frostpunk cold snap, these events compel you to manage with one eye to the future. Water reserves for pandemics. Burners for winter, and food reserves to compensate once fishing lakes freeze over. Guard towers to deal with aggressive creatures. Resource stockpiles to repair buildings when the mercurial sky decides to periodically vomit fire.

Surviving The Aftermath
Surviving The Aftermath. Credit: Iceflake Studios.

You might soon find your most important resource is your colonists themselves. While most of their work/sleep routines are automated – with some control over which jobs to prioritise through buildings – you have direct control of a few specific, unique survivors. You can set them about gathering berries or other chump work, If you’re feeling especially insulting, their unique talents are better applied to exploring the world map. Early game construction of a gate allows these specialists to venture out, scavenging for vital resources, establishing outposts, or advancing the main story.

The same gate that grants your colony freedom to explore the world outside your ramshackle tenements and makeshift hunting cabins also invites guests to come visit. Some benign, others less so. A mystic armed with riddles. An eccentric trader adorned with a saucepan hat and brandishing a golf-club walking stick. Clutches of survivors willing to join you, and bandits demanding tribute on threat of violence. When violence does occur, you’ll watch some numbers growl angrily at each other, ticking down until one of them reads 0. Yep – it’s as thrilling as it sounds, though admittedly that’s a small complaint considering how rarely combat occurs.

Those story events will occasionally pop up in your colony too, unprompted. An early game constant sees you investigating wood missing from storage, only to find the camp’s children have been stealing it to build a treehouse. I’m sure some harsh utilitarians might opt to destroy the secret hideaway to claw back the wood, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to. And really, what are we saving here if we crush all joy from the world? I appreciate that the game made me think like this, but really, it was such a piddling amount of wood that there’s no real mechanical incentive to go all Tywin Lannister on the poor kids. Again, despite some superficial similarities, this isn’t Frostpunk.

Surviving The Aftermath
Surviving The Aftermath. Credit: Iceflake Studios.

So you let the kids keep the treehouse, and you get a happiness bonus to the whole camp. And happiness itself is a rare, if not especially significant, commodity. Opt for the tech-tree route of upgrading your tents to larger, crowded versions, and you’ll get some grumbles as colonists find themselves with less living space. Recent deaths or resource shortages affect morale. Let it drop too low, and you might even find groups threatening to leave, or revolting altogether.

Management readability is generally well done, although the UI giveth and taketh away. A welcome set of pop-ups highlights issues for you, including letting you know when your explorers have a fresh crop of action points to do more on the world map. Although this in itself is a frustrating system that I imagine was intended to blend into a routine of micro and macro management but only feels limiting, arbitrarily halting progress and stodging up game flow. Elsewhere, the dull design but huge variety of buildings make finding the specific one you want to micro a chore.

So, it’s a plate spinner, essentially. And it’s not that plate spinning can’t be totally absorbing, but that same absorption can end up distracting you for so long you forget to ask whether you’re actually enjoying yourself. And when I stop to ask myself whether I’m enjoying Aftermath or merely, you know, Surviving it, I’m not so sure. It’s all a bit creaky, a bit rusty, sure, but it is functional: it does function as a working sim with just enough tension to make those plates worth spinning to begin with. The tropes those plates are commemorating, though – the stories that fly out from spinning Aftermath’s systems repeatedly – aren’t quite vivid enough to make up for all the wrist ache.

Surviving The Aftermath launches on November 16 for PC, PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch on November 16. It will be forward-compatible for PS5 and Xbox Series X|S. PC version tested. 

The Verdict

Surviving The Aftermath is a competent enough entry in the “keep your tiny people alive by making sure they’re collecting enough resources and researching the right things to spend them on” genre, But a quantity over quality approach to systems and an uninspiring setting mean that the lingering echoes of better games make me wish I just was playing those instead.

Pros

  • Some creative event writing, even if the mechanical consequences mean little
  • Nice character art
  • Interesting interplay between random catastrophes and resource usage

Cons

  • Exploring the map is essential, but a complete chore
  • Setting is a pastiche of dozens of more interesting post-apocalyptic scenarios
  • Systems are stacked tall, but rarely expanded wide enough to have much depth
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