Review: Afterparty

There have been countless versions of Hell in modern media. Sure, there’s a lot of common themes – torture, evil incarnate, cloven hooves etc – but I’m not sure there’s ever been a portrayal quite like Afterparty‘s.

You play as childhood friends Milo and Lola who have found themselves among the recently deceased and wind up in the waiting room of Hell, waiting to be sentenced to their eternal punishment. Mondays, am I right?

As luck would have it, the continuous torture for the demons in this Hell is treated as nothing more than a monotonous job, and they operate a strict 9-5 schedule. The eponymous heroes are given a reprieve as they miss the chance to be judged when the demons clock out for the night (and I’m sure all of us can appreciate the sentiment behind that attitude) and the player has the freedom to explore their newfound hellish surroundings. It’s at this point that the game truly begins; the dynamic duo meet Sam, a friendly demonic cab driver who – literally – ferries them around the map at will and tells them about a convenient lil’ legal loophole that lets damned souls escape from Hell and return to their bodies back on Earth. How, I hear you cry? It’s simple – out party Satan. Yep. Lucifer. Lord of Hell. They have to literally out drink him. I mean, daaaaaaamn if that ain’t a hell of a USP then I don’t know what is.

To quote the now famous line, gentlemen you had my curiosity … but now you have my attention.

Afterparty
Copyright © Night School Studios

I enjoy how Afterparty portrays Hell. It’s bright and loud but also kind of sad. You can tell that none of the demons feel true job satisfaction, and everyone – humans and demons alike – spend far too much time in the many bars drinking their sorrows away. It hits pretty close to home at times in the pseudo-social commentary atmosphere of Hell, particularly with the inclusion of a social media in the game. One of the first things you’ll see is a Twitter like pop up from someone on their phone, and wow, many of them are so accurate it hurts. At least, until you come to the realisation that there’s actually only a small pool of them and then you end up with the same “tweet” 3 times in a row. It does take you out of the moment, but it’s something I’m willing to forgive because the tweets themselves are fricking hilarious. However, the social media element is a small and ultimately insignificant part of the game; after it’s only mandatory usage early in the game, it’s relegated to being background UI that you can willfully ignore without losing anything from the experience. In Afterparty the gameplay revolves around 3 things: walking, talking, and drinking.

The bulk of the gameplay is the same as Oxenfree where you walk around the environment and have multiple choice conversations with other characters, but interestingly these mechanics are simultaneously both more robust and limited all at once. And that’s before we even consider the new mechanics. Oh yes, there are a few new mechanics, which are fab by the way, but we’ll get to them shortly.

Unlike Oxenfree the environmental exploration is predominantly set on a singular path across each level that takes the player horizontally across the screen rather than having much opportunity to move vertically. That’s not to say there aren’t vertical sections, there are, but this is just an extension of the singular set path. While Oxenfree gave you some (admittedly restricted) choice in how you traversed the environment Afterparty is unapologetically linear, which I personally found to it’s detriment on occasion because it just felt tedious towards the back end of the game to go back and forth across a landscape with so little actual input. You could genuinely push the analog stick either left or right and wait to get wherever you needed to go. Even if Oxenfree‘s exploration was a smokescreen to create the illusion of verticality, at least it was more dynamic to play. There is a pretty sweet depth to the game visuals though as it’s now a beautiful, rich 3D environment, and there are parts where it looks downright gorgeous, especially with the bold lighting choices.

The dialogue system has also changed in comparison to the previous game. Oxenfree gave players 3 dialogue options for the most part, occasionally dropping it back to 2 for the more distinct decision points, but Afterparty limits the player to 2 options as standard unless you take advantage of one of the new mechanics: the cocktails. Yes, we’ve finally made it – cocktails are now a legitimate game mechanic. What a time to be alive.

Scattered around the environment are bars where the player can rock up and order one of 4 cocktail choices. Although there are some overlaps in the drink selection, the majority of the bars have an offering unique to their location. These drinks are not only humourous, but give the player a temporary dialogue buff depending on the drink consumed. Some drinks give the player courage, which leads to some ballsy repartee and plenty of swearing, other drinks can make them flirtatious and willing to hit on anything that moves – the list goes on, there are too many to name here to be honest. The one thing I will mention is that these buffs are limited to the environment where the bar is and you’ll lose any drink you’re still holding when you leave. Bit of a shame, but I get it.

Afterparty - Bartender
Copyright © Night School Studios

The dialogue itself is well written. The characters are realistic, funny and smart when needed, but there are points in the game where you just want to scream ‘JUST SAY THE DAMN THING!’, usually when either Milo or Lola start tripping up over themselves saying things like ‘Uh, well I… I dunno I just thought, like, maybe…’. They stutter, repeat themselves, and act like ‘real’ people but it’s turned up to eleven, which means it sometimes comes full circle and suddenly seems overthought and redundant. It’s a shame, because it is SO well written, it just needs an editor to come in and dial it back a touch and they’ll have it knocking on the door of perfection in no time. To be honest, this problem is only with the two main characters, the rest of the cast are actually bang on point with their dialogue. Especially Sam – her cutting wit and blasé fourth wall breaks are laugh out loud and extremely well delivered. It’s no surprise though, Sam is voiced by the talented Ashly Burch who has played characters in a wide range of games, from Borderlands to Life is Strange, I’m convinced there’s nothing she can’t do.

Another breakout character is Wormhorn, Milo and Lola’s personal demon. I mean it makes sense, on earth we’ve got personal shoppers and personal trainers, why not a personal demon? Wormhorn follows the duo around, unseen for the most part, but pops up every now and then to try and poke holes in their confidence. How effective this is is up to the player, but the dynamic between the main characters and Wormhorn is great. Wormhorn acts like someone just starting out at a new company and desperately wants to do a good job to impress the boss man, but she does get easily flustered depending on the player’s choices. As the player you can even express sympathy for Wormhorn and (minor spoilers) there’s a secret achievement for befriending her, which I think shows the depths that the dialogue can touch upon. After all, how many games would let you be mates with the character who is literally trying to torture and undermine you throughout the game?

As well as the wonderful voice acting all round (seriously, I don’t think there was a single character who wasn’t totally selling it), Scntfc have crafted another fantastic score that is haunting, fun and memorable. It’s distinctive, but also in no way impeding on the rest of the gameplay. It only adds, it never takes away. Seriously, I can’t sing enough praises about the soundtrack; I thought Oxenfree‘s music was great, but this is something special.

As I mentioned earlier, Afterparty introduces a series of mini-games to break up the walkin’ and talkin’. The first one you come across is beer pong (yes, beer pong) which is a quick and easy ball tossing game. Although I expected it to be punishing to newcomers, it was actually quite forgiving and well designed; a curved line on the HUD indicates where you’re going to throw the ball, and you just have to release it. Lather, rinse, repeat. The learning curve was minimal, but it does require some degree of skill to win. I did manage to win my very first game, but that’s not to say that it wasn’t a challenge, it was, and there were moments where I felt my breath catch in my chest as I watched my opponents ball soar across the screen, only to bounce off one of my cups. There’s also a target hitting mini-game which uses the same mechanics of the beer pong – it is just ball throwing mechanics after all – but Night School Studios do have a couple of tricks up their sleeve; the first is a dancing mini-game where you have to match sequential button presses that get progressively harder, and then there’s a Jacob’s Ladder mini game where you have to take a shot and then stack the shot glasses on top of each other. The latter is the hardest mini-game in Afterparty mainly because the game does a poor job of explaining how to play and the UI that shows you the button prompts is incredibly hard to see the first time you play thanks to the white UI elements being set against a background that’s both light and dark, losing any hope of being able to see it. I lost the first time I played because I spent so long trying to figure out what the heck was going on that my opponent managed to get to the last shot before I stacked my second. It was demoralising, but nothing that a cheeky quit and reload couldn’t fix. The second time around was a much fairer fight, so I have no qualms save scumming in that instance. If I were the devs, I would be inclined to look into adding a faded opacity background to these UI elements, if for nothing more than accessibility. 

Afterparty - Jacob's Ladder
Copyright © Night School Studios

Whilst Oxenfree was a decidedly serious game, Afterparty has its tongue in cheek moments. Although the majority of these are in the dialogue, there are some pretty great visual gags too, my favourite involving some carefully pixelated revelers at Satan’s house party. I recognise that, out of context, that entire sentence is completely bananas but you’ll see what I mean when you get there. Sam the cabbie is also particularly humourous, not being afraid to call shit out and break the 4th wall rampantly. There’s a lot of wink-wink-nudge-nudge call backs to Oxenfree that made me one happy camper, but there’s a particular line of dialogue about ‘save the spoilers for the next playthrough’ that made me giggle-snort unashamedly. Alas, Afterparty doesn’t have a secret second playthrough like the first game, which I think is a crying shame because a) it would have been a nice continuity through the studios’ games, and b) you LITERALLY just teased it, don’t do this to me! 

As you can see, I do feel a bit let down because although the in joke was great, maybe it gets players hopes up just a bit too much. But, in all fairness, maaaaaaybe that’s more on me than the developers.

At the end of the day Afterparty is another great game from Night School Studios. It’s not without it’s flaws, and there were moments that felt like they were taking steps backwards, not forwards, but for the most part they kept the spirit of the first game whilst trying to innovate and iterate on their mechanics, and for that I thank them. There are too many games being released that are cookie cutter versions of each other, too afraid to take risks or make changes so I think Night School Studios should be praised for having the guts to try out new things. I hope they learn from Afterparty and use the experience to have the courage to do the same again.

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