Following its debut game, Night School Studio had the unenviable task of keeping up its momentum. 2016’s Oxenfree was a surprise hit that innovated on the choose-your-own-adventure genre in ways that have still yet to be outdone. Afterparty, in many ways, feels like a spiritual successor to Oxenfree, but it also feels a bit like a sophomore slump. The game’s strong premise and Night School’s continuing practice of rethinking the way players make choices keep it worthwhile, but bugs consistently halt the flow of the game, leaving Afterparty feeling like a hell of a time, but with some damning issues too.
To die by your side, such a heavenly way to die
Release date: October 29, 2019
Platform(s): PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch
Developer / Publisher: Night School Studio
Sarcastic Lola and timid Milo are best friends, recent college graduates, and even more recently dead and gone to Hell. Not content to stick around, they soon learn humans are allowed to leave if they can out-party Satan himself. Determined to get back to their post-grad lives on Earth, the pair set out to drink Lucifer under the table until he agrees to give them safe passage home. Afterparty’s depiction of the underworld is irreverent and neon-lit. As one early demon tells the pair of friends, every religion they heard about got a little bit right and most things wrong. God is real, but so is the Devil, though the prince of the underworld is maybe not the punishing rage monster you’d think he is.
Night School’s Hell is a world where humans are sent for the smallest infractions, like using the express lane in grocery stores when they have too many items in their carriage. It’s where demons work regular 9-5 schedules and go out during their off-work hours, drinking heavily and partying like there’s no tomorrow - because in eternity, there technically isn’t.
Unlike in Oxenfree, where jokey millennial future shock gives way to darker stakes as the story goes on, Afterparty’s similarly youthful spirit and questions of “now what?” are given consistent levity. Afterparty is a comedy game through and through, and that’s its strongest feat. Demons approach their roles as torturers like humans would a factory job, bringing the same oft-seen apathy to something as severe as forcing hellbound humans to urinate sand. Then their shift ends and the tortured and the torturers go out to play beer pong together like it was all just another day at the office.
After the opening act, I began wondering if Afterparty might be the funniest game I’ve ever played, and though it doesn’t end up in the top spot, it’s quite near that summit. No matter how serious the situation could’ve or even should’ve been, the game doesn’t lose sight of its absurd premise, and it doubles-down on it all the time by gleefully disrespecting the tendencies of humanity and our best-laid plans, faith-based or otherwise.
If you played Oxenfree, you’ll find Afterparty’s dialogue system familiar. Lola and Milo will spend the game’s four to five hours moving left to right, talking to secondary characters to advance a plot that players get to steer quite a lot. Every time a prompt appears for you to talk, you can choose one of two choices, say nothing, or, in a new wrinkle befitting of the boozy hellscape, sip your drink for a fourth drunk option.
Drinks have different characteristics so your path through a conversation may go totally different on subsequent playthroughs. One drink may make you flirty, while another can imbue you with confidence, tell bad jokes, or even talk like a pirate. Every character seamlessly reacts to whatever you’re firing back at them and the whole system maintains a natural flow that few adventure games have achieved. Quests have a similar elasticity too, and you’ll need to play several times to see all versions of events, including at least three endings.
It does sometimes feel like Hell is too quiet given its party atmosphere. Walking around to complete branching quests, the game is happy to let you veer off course sometimes to drink somewhere else or chat with the locals, but it seems like more often extending your travels to the far reaches of the screen is unrewarded. Demons and humans are often seen chatting, but not often enough are they heard. Still, when the optional moments do arise, they’re always funny. You can even follow along with Hell’s official social media platform, Bicker, to see what people are saying across the Nine Circles. It’s almost as miserable as Twitter, I’d say.
All bugs go to Hell
All of the above would’ve cemented Afterparty as one of my favorites of 2019, but the game’s instability in several areas hurt the experience too much to keep it there. Most glaring are frame rate skips, which plague the game after a smooth opening section. It’s in the small 2D open-world hubs where this problem most often rears its stuttering head, like the game has trouble keeping up with your travels when it can’t predict where you might head next.
I've been informed that it’s a known issue, affects only base level consoles (despite the fact I'm playing on Xbox One S), and will be patched this weekend and in time for day one, but finishing the game mid-morning on a Sunday, I never saw any patch arrive in time for me, and even then, I don’t know how much it will help when it does arrive. Hopefully when the game launches, this is one issue that disappears, but it’s also not the only problem.
A few times, dialogue options repeated too, including one argument between Lola and Milo that they had twice, once after each chapter-ending quest. It seems given the game’s branching story that it failed to recognize I’d already had the particular chat I found myself having again. Another time toward the end, I got stuck on an infinite loading screen and had to rest the game from the dashboard. One other time, I also lost all dialogue audio at a crucial point. Thankfully I had subtitles on and quickly reset again to resolve this issue. It starts off stable and clean, but by the end, Afterparty gets messier than someone sent to push boulders up a hill all day.
Perhaps on other platforms it will run more smoothly, and maybe by day one this patch will have already fixed some if not all of these issues. I hope so, because Afterparty is, in most other ways, a game deserving of great praise. It’s hilarious and blasphemous, but just a little too buggy to fully be enjoyed.
Reviewed on Xbox One S.