Masks: that’s the thing that immediately grabs me. The fact that you, along with every other passenger onboard the train, are wearing a mask. It’s a small unremarked upon detail that hits me – in a year where all game development has been impacted by Covid, What Comes After is the first game I’ve seen to actually be set during the pandemic. How fitting then that this is a game about what happens when you die, and the masks we wear before that point.
In this story we play as Vivi, a young woman who leads a lonely life and worries about being a burden upon others. As she commutes home on the last train, Vivi frets at the prospect of another evening with nothing to do. She dozes off, as we’ve all done before, but wakes to find the train has emptied of passengers and is now ferrying the souls of the dead to ‘what comes after’.
As with all games like this, if it’s something you’re interested in then it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible – story-wise what I’ll say in this review is no more than you’ll get from the eShop description. What Comes After is less of a game, more of a short story interactive visual novel. It really is short, but while you can finish it in under an hour you can spend much longer contemplating its meaning and the lessons it seeks to impart.
The ‘gameplay’ involves walking through the train and talking to the departed souls of living things as you journey to the afterlife and back. Not just people though, you’ll converse with animals and plants in a fairy-tail twist as you journey alongside them, with some of the best moments coming from when you do. The dialogue is written in a blunt matter-of-fact and humorous style as the small team of developers tries to imagine what a mushroom would have to say about dying. The souls will ruminate on love, regrets, life and death, helping Vivi learn to appreciate the fact she’s on a return journey. Themes are borrowed from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as the game makes clear she’s been lucky to see where her life was heading and be given a chance to change things before it’s too late.
There’s not much to the graphics here, although they are not at all the point of why you’d play. While the art style is charming and stylised, things look very simple and basic and the animation is very plain (Vivi has an odd run that’s more of a shuffle across the screen). The act of pressing ‘A’ to move the text on quickly becomes boring too, as you initiate and scroll through a lot of conversations. Most of that hour-long runtime is spent hitting A and trying to ignore the annoying sound the text makes.
I’ll carry on getting all the negative points out of the way – the work done to port What Comes After from PC to Switch is also quite sloppy. I noticed an on screen prompt instructing me to press the spacebar to continue at one point. The English translation also has a few errors which took me out of the moment unfortunately.
Technical shortcomings are not however particularly relevant in the grand scheme of things, in the same way a book’s purpose is less to be found in how the words have been printed on the page and more in the thoughts and feelings those words evoke. What Comes After is an experience you spend more time thinking about after you switch it off than you do playing it. You might argue the message could have been more successful as a written short story instead, but then by choosing to make a game the developers have ensured their work will reach an audience that may never have found it as a book. It’s rare that a game tackles themes like this, and I imagine more than a few people out there will find it and take comfort from it.
Some moments really do hit hard, such as when you speak to people who have died in utterly sad circumstances, or to animals that have lived a life of cruelty. There’s no rush here, some conversations ended and I found myself just sitting quietly next to a soul out of respect for them. In these moments I couldn’t help but ponder what my own deceased friends or family members might have said had they been onboard the train, or what loved ones close to their time might reflect on during the journey they’ll soon take. At a time when people all over the world are being taken too soon, What Comes After feels worthwhile amongst the usual bombastic games we tend to play, like when a busy train concourse stops for a minute’s silence.
Suicide is not a subject we tend to see tackled by videogames, but it is discussed here in a way that I found to be sensitive, if a little basic, though everyone will take their own view on that depending on their personal interpretation and experiences. It’s commendable that the developers had the bravery to tackle the subject at all though. The game’s message is not at all subtle, but if you find yourself in a place where you need to stop and think, to take a moment to appreciate who you are and why you matter, you could do far worse than dedicate an evening to this game.