The creators of Oxenfree return with a new game that has some of the best dialogue of the year, but is Afterparty really worth attending?
Video game depictions of Hell usually tend to be disappointingly traditional, most offering little more than the cliched fire and brimstone. Or if it’s based on older myths, like God Of War, all you tend to get is musty-looking caves and some disgruntled lost souls. There’s a lot of the latter in Afterparty, the new game from the makers of Oxenfree, but what they’re usually complaining about is the quality of drinks at a post-torture night club.
Afterparty portrays the underworld as a place of eternal damnation, but where both demons and humans get time off between torture sessions in order to kick back and, if they’re lucky, relax. It’s a darkly cynical take on the whole concept of divine punishment but one that works primarily because of the excellent dialogue of developer Night School Studio.
Although it’s hard to pigeonhole exactly, Afterparty’s similarity to classic era LucasArts adventures like Monkey Island is in more than just the visuals, as you meet the game’s cast of oddball characters and try to talk – and drink – your way out of trouble. There’s not really much in the way of puzzles or other distractions but with storytelling this good that almost doesn’t matter.
The set-up in Afterparty involves two young friends, named Milo and Lola, who are freshly arrived in Hell and, understandably, not looking forward to an eternity of torment. They discover an unlikely loophole in Hell’s rules though, which state that if you can outdrink Satan you can return to the living world. Getting permission to even try is difficult enough though, as the pair try to network their way around the underworld and take their shot at drinking the Prince of Lies under the table.
Afterparty uses a similar dialogue system to Oxenfree, where characters frequently talk over each other and multiple dialogue options are available for you to interrupt at any time. That might sound confusing on paper but in action it feels far more realistic than any other video game dialogue system. Rather than just waiting tedious long minutes for a character to finish their lines, this feels like you’re really talking to someone and makes the whole process seem much more interactive.
It’d improve any game but it works particularly well here because the dialogue and voice-acting are so good. Afterparty has some issues, which we’ll get to in a moment, but it’s one of the best-written and acted games of the year. And compared to some of the worst, like Ghost Recon Breakpoint, the gulf in quality is – inappropriately for Afterparty – very sobering.
Obviously, nobody in Hell is there because they’re a nice person, so most of the dialogue is a never-ending stream of snaky comments and put downs. But while the references to modern devilry such as social media and unrestricted capitalism can be a little heavy-handed the breakdown of Milo and Lola’s characters is handled very cleverly. They have their own personal demon assigned to torment them and that involves not just physical torture but bringing up more personal details about their families and insecurities.
What’s impressive about Afterparty is that with a different plot and visuals it could easily have been a serious story. Especially as the plot itself is underplayed to such a degree that the game often lacks a sense of drive and urgency. Most of the characters you meet aren’t evil, they’re just not particularly good, and one of the game’s key points is that simply stopping yourself from being the worst you can be is not any kind of moral achievement.
The one shame about the dialogue system though is that none of your choices have that much effect on the story. To be fair, Afterparty never promotes itself as a Life Is Strange style branching narrative (although some of Night School Studio’s team did used to work at Telltale Games) but it does seem a bit of a missed opportunity.
What’s also a shame is that one of the game’s most unique features is that imbibing different drinks gives you new dialogue options, but that side of things seems very underdeveloped. Drinks are generally used so you can be funnier or more intimidating, or to give you specific abilities like doing impressions or a bit of Dutch courage, but it feels like it should be a bigger part of the game than it really is.
Afterparty feels like it’s on the cusp of greatness but never quite sticks the landing. It’s rather short, at around five hours, which is fine in terms of value for money but with no proper puzzles, or anything else to do outside a few lame mini-games, it all feels a little undercooked. There’s also quite a few bugs and glitches, which doesn’t help matters.
Night School Studio are clearly a highly talented studio, but it definitely feels like their potential is being constrained by indie budgets. We’d love to see a big publisher pick them up for their next project, as whatever other faults it might have Afterparty has some heavenly dialogue and voice-acting.
Afterparty review summary
In Short: Some of the best dialogue of the year and an interestingly original portrayal of Hell overcome a slightly undercooked take on classic graphic adventures.
Pros: Great dialogue and equally good voice-acting, that’s both very funny and capable of making some serious points. Naturalistic dialogue system works very well. Nice art style.
Cons: The plot is underplayed too much and none of your dialogue choices seem to make much difference. Drinking to alter your personality is underused and the whole game is rather short. Some bugs.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Publisher: Night School Studio
Developer: Night School Studio
Release Date: 29th October 2019
Age Rating: 18
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