Afterparty REVIEW – a hell of a time

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Platform: PC
Developer: Night School Studio
Publisher: Night School Studio

The premise of Afterparty is a unique one: you’re dead, you’ve been sent to hell, and now you have to beat Satan at a drinking competition where the prize is your freedom. That setup is just awesome; it combines the widely known fact that being drunk is great with the instantly recognisable backdrop of Hell, while subverting the tone of doom and gloom that you’d expect from the afterlife. Rather than being Agony – a game that shoves horrific gore and genitalia in your force and goes “ooh look how horrible this place is, bet you’re glad you’re not here” – Afterparty grounds eternal damnation in a wholly relatable setting. When the residents of Hades aren’t doing their nine-to-five job of being tortured for eternity, they’re hanging out at bars, drinking their troubles away with their friends. Demons and humans co-exist, and there’s this overarching feeling of contentment among the damned. It’s a pretty clever parallel to the real world, where most people wake up, go to their torturous job that they hate, and spend the rest of the night unwinding, before the cycle starts again.

In truth, the world of endless suffering portrayed in Afterparty isn’t all that different to our own, but the writers never pretend like that’s a good thing. There’s an unspoken sadness to the continued existence of many of Hell’s citizens, but also an unwillingness to change that status quo. The people here are defeated; they’ve accepted that this is the life they deserve and appear to have no plans to change it. This is Hell, after all. I mean, Satan himself is constantly partying and drinking, and if he’s the one in charge, there must be some sense in doing the same. However, as the game goes on, it becomes clear that the Lord of Death is actually setting a really bad example, and he needs to recognise that it’s his responsibility to show people that this way of life is incredibly damaging. Afterparty is cleverly pointing out that you have a right to question the state of the world, and that oftentimes systemic issues are a result of irresponsible behaviour from those holding the power. It’s the duty of the powerful to set the right example for the people because if they do promote a good lifestyle, people will follow suit. (Uh oh, do I hear the social commentary alarm going off, oh wow, oh jeez!) The world of Afterparty is a beautifully realised one, both visually and thematically, and it’s a shame, because for all Night School Studio get right, there’s a whole lotta wrong to go with it.

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That’s Satan’s house in the distance, Party Central of Hell!

Let’s look at our protagonists: Milo and Lola. On the website for the game, the tagline is “escape hell with your best bud”, which implies the developers want the friendship between the two to be the core of the experience. The game begins at a college graduation party and, as the scene plays out, it becomes clear that the only friends Milo and Lola had in life were each other. You find out that they’ve been friends since kindergarten and, for better or for worse, they’ve always been there for each other. The problem that became apparent around halfway into my playthrough is one that affected the entire emotional core of the experience: I never bought that Milo and Lola were friends.In the first two hours, the game has to rapid-fire a lot of information your way so that you understand the world, as well as a lot of the gameplay mechanics, and this all comes at the expense of characterisation.

For the entire playthrough, I never really got a sense of what Milo and Lola were like as people. They’re given base personalities early on – Milo is an anxious introvert who’s trying to work through his insecurities, while Lola is a cynical smart-ass who acts as the decision-maker in the relationship. However, I don’t think the characters really move past those starting points and this is mostly because you control them both. I should clarify that statement: like many other games, you switch between the two characters intermittently and you control their movements during levels. However, unlike most other games, you also control their actions and decisions that can affect the story. This is fine in concept, but in practice this led to a strong emotional disconnect from this friendship that I was supposed to care about. I think the problem here is that Milo and Lola are already characters with their own personalities, yet the game expects you to make decisions that can vary wildly from what they would actually do.

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There are a few drinking-themed minigames you can do, including drunk dancing and beer pong. Bring on the booze!

To illustrate my point a bit better, take a look at Oxenfree, Night School Studio’s previous game. In Oxenfree, you control Alex, a teenager fresh out of high school, heading to an island for one last drunken party before everyone splits off for college. She’s accompanied by her best friend Ren, her new stepbrother Jonas, a girl named Clarissa who – without spoiling it – is bound to Alex through a mutual tragedy, and Nona, who’s there too. Alex does have a backstory, a set of certain events that affected her character, but the game never tells you how she feels about any of it (aside from basic human emotions like how she cares about her family). The point is, as the player, you get to decide how you feel about your situation. Do you choose to accept Jonas as a part of your life, or would you rather cast him aside and refuse that connection? Do you want to maintain your relationship with Ren, or do you find him annoying? Will you make peace with Clarissa or blame her for your troubles? All these reactions are treated as equally valid and they can affect the outcome of the story.

Alex’s friendship with Ren is very similar to that of Milo and Lola, but what works about the former is the way Ren acts around you. He’s incredibly laid-back; you get the sense that he’d tell you anything. Sometimes he’ll bring up stories from the past and the game allows you to choose how Alex should feel about them. The dialogue is written in a really naturalistic way, which makes every conversation feel completely authentic and you buy into every relationship a lot easier. Afterparty, on the other hand, is written as a comedy first and foremost, and while it does succeed in being a very funny video game, that comes at the expense of making these characters believable. As the game goes on, you find out more about their backstories and the conflict in their friendship and it’s fine I suppose, but a lot of it is just standard coming-of-age fluff that never feels properly wrapped up. It really feels like the friendship that’s at the core of the game was a last-minute inclusion. Whenever it becomes the focus of the story, the pacing grinds to a halt while you wait for the exposition to end.

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Visually, Afterparty is beautiful. Each area is distinct in colour, lighting and sound, and this one was my favourite of all.

There’s actually a lot of waiting around for dialogue to end in this game. Due to the increased production value, there’s a lot more variation in how sequences can play out. We’ve got the topsy-turvy interview scene, the asides with Wormhorn, the gravity-defying walkways in Satan’s abode – it’s all really well executed and adds to the otherworldlyness of the setting. However, this also led to a whole lotta waiting, although the bizarre visuals and great vocal performances made those segments a lot easier to engage with. The way those sections are is fine. What ISN’T fine is the boring-as-sin NPC encounters. Unlike Oxenfree, there’s a quest system in Afterparty which typically involves walking over to an NPC, having a chat with them, before doing whatever the quest says. Obviously, this is very standard video game stuff, but some of these conversations go on for a while, and while you do have a few dialogue options to choose from, none of them really make a difference. There’s even a mechanic which allows for unique dialogue depending on the kind of drink you order. It’s a cool idea, but it doesn’t really do anything meaningful, gameplay-wise. I’d compare it to cosmetic options in multiplayer games: you can make your gun yellow, green, blue, orange, hot pink or very masculine brown but at the end of the day, it’s the same gun shooting the same bullets. What I mean is regardless of whether you say a line sarcastically, flirtily or pirate-ly, you’re always gonna get the same outcome and the whole experience starts to feel a whole lot more like a walking simulator.

I should say that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – there are plenty of “walking sims” that I’d call excellent – but Afterparty tries to tell a specific story, while also pretending you have an impact over how that story goes. Of course, there are branching paths and different endings influenced by certain major choices you make throughout the game, which is pretty cool, but that doesn’t mean the endings are particularly satisfying. Of course, I won’t get into spoilers here, but I will say there’s a very interesting twist as you gear up to outdrink Satan that completely threw me, and I found myself grinning throughout that final encounter. The actual ending I got still felt somewhat rushed and unsatisfying, but the way Lucifer is handled as a character is all parts funny, subversive and sad in its brutal honesty. Looking back on the game as a whole, this twist feels like the perfect ending given the premise, so perfect in fact that it almost appeared like this was the original idea, and the rest of the game was begrudgingly tossed in to allow that specific moment to happen. You should take that as both a criticism of the game’s messy structure, as well as a compliment to the clever writing on display.

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Within Satan’s home lies your key to freedom; all you have to do is out-drink the God of Death. No pressure.

In fact, as down as I’ve been on Afterparty, there’s no denying that the game is incredibly funny and clever a lot of the time. I love a lot of the throwaway characters, like the mischievous torturers being disciplined by their no-nonsense Irish boss, or the slightly-too-friendly interviewer who’s being way too causal talking about your very recent death, or the amazing processing officer issuing sentences to the eternally damned in the most spiteful tone he can. Whoever voiced that guy did a hilarious job; I was almost in tears laughing at his line delivery. That’s all in the first twenty minutes and these wonderful little moments happen all throughout your playtime. These characters have no effect on the story, but they do contribute to solidifying this darkly comedic tone and while their execution is dull from a gameplay standpoint, their absence would’ve been seriously felt. That’s not to detract from the main cast of characters, however.

While I have said that Milo and Lola aren’t very interesting, the people around them often are. Satan is the standout, played to perfection by Dave Fennoy. Ashly Burch also gives a great performance as Sam the Taxi Driver, acting as the transporter between areas, throwing in some funny insights on a gorgeous backdrop to mask the loading times. On top of that, there’s the Monarchs of Hell – Onoskelis, Apollyon and Asmodeus – who are all completely unique from one another with their own motivations and struggles and the actors do a great job portraying them. My favourite character is probably Wormhorn, your personal demon, who exists to torment you by planting seeds of doubt in your mind as to whether that decision you made was the right one. The character has this childish giddiness in the work she does, which is just a joy to watch. You kinda hate her, but you can’t deny her enthusiasm – she’s great.

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The backgrounds of each area truly add to this constant feeling that you’re a tiny piece in this inconceivably large world. You’re out of your league here.

There are certainly great moments to enjoy in this game; perhaps enough to be worth recommending. However, I just can’t do that in good faith, and the reason is down to the bugs. Afterparty, as of right now, is littered with performance issues. There was some standard jank problems, like how Sam’s taxi would get stuck on something under the lava and flip upwards slightly every time she’d drive off, or the fact at one point I became unable to view the photos the game had saved as progress indicators and couldn’t access them for the rest of the game, or the time where I called for the elevator a little too quickly and the character who was in the elevator got suspended in mid-air for the entire rest of the segment until she became important to the scene, or the two times subtitles appeared despite my having them turned off, or the fact that it would often take ages for the game to prepare drinks after you order them.

In fairness, these kinds of bugs would be considered charming in a Bethesda thing and while the game would obviously be better off without them, I could honestly look past them since they don’t actually affect anything outside of immersion. However, some of these bugs were just straight-up game breaking. At one point, Sam sent my character a text message, and then it just didn’t go away, even when I visited Sam. Of course, this didn’t exactly stop me from playing or anything, but it was heavily distracting. It’s true that I could’ve just spent my future days in this trance where Lola stares at her phone for the rest of time like a re-enactment of one of those awful boomer comics, but of course I didn’t because that would be stupid and I had to restart the game. Before that, there was a moment where I went to order drinks, but the bartender glitched out and the drink options never came up, leaving me in this bizarre limbo where I couldn’t move or press any buttons, and I had to restart.

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This was the screen where the game got stuck. Dreading the lifetime of suspended silence that awaited me, I decided to restart the game.

Those were pretty bad, but the worst offender was this moment where, after I’d completed a quest, Milo and Lola started having a conversation about growing apart after college, which kinda leads to an argument. The scene itself is okay, but the issue came when I very quickly realised the game was repeating dialogue I’d already heard from the quest I’d done before this. I can only assume this happened because you can do the two quests in whatever order you like, and the game just got confused as to where I was. Regardless, this kind of thing, especially in a game that prides itself on branching paths, is just unacceptable. It makes me kinda sad too, because I didn’t get to hear the other interaction that I assume was supposed to happen. Who knows? Maybe it would’ve changed my opinion on the characters somehow. I doubt it, but I think it goes without saying that missing potentially important story content because of a glitch is pretty dang whack.

So I guess that’s my conclusion. Afterparty is a really cool game with some really cool ideas. Its depiction of the afterlife is constantly fascinating and brimming with creativity. The writing has a good few issues, but it’s still consistently entertaining from start to finish. The game is almost worth playing for that twist near the end because it is that good, regardless of the problems that came before. Ultimately, Afterparty has some admirable ambitions, but unfortunately its core gameplay hook of controlling two characters ends up negatively affecting the emotional heart of the experience. If you enjoyed Oxenfree and this looks like the kind of game you could get into, then I’d give it a shot – it is only £16, after all. However, I would recommend waiting for a patch before doing that because in its current state, it’s not worth tarnishing your first experience with the game.

GOOD

6/10

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