I’ve played many good to great video games in my life, but the ones that left me inspired, or reeling, or kept me up at night thinking about them after completing them is a much shorter list. One such game was Oxenfree, from developer Night School Studio. It was another entry into the surprisingly large “story-based games where Pacific Northwest teenage girls encounter the supernatural” genre, but it ditched the standard “game stops so you can make a dialogue” choice dialogue mechanics of previous games and let you have natural conversations while traversing beautiful, hand-painted landscapes, set to a chilling soundtrack by scntfc that merged digital and analog sounds into a haunting mix. Add a dash of timey-wimey looping action and a mind-bending New Game+ ending, and it was my game of the year for 2016.
Night School is back, and last month they released Afterparty. The game can be boiled down into a high-concept pitch: “Two dead people attempt to escape Hell by outdrinking Satan.” The dead, in this case, are best friends Lola and Milo, celebrating the end of college one moment, and then the next, finding themselves in the Underworld. The only way out is through the aforementioned contest with the Devil—but the remarkably chummy Lucifer isn’t interested in making it quite so simple, so Milo and Lola end up traversing Hell’s neighborhoods to make their roundabout shot at escape. And when the chance to get out of hell finally arrives… it doesn’t feel like the victory Milo and Lola hoped for.
Like Oxenfree, the walk-and-talk mechanics comes over pretty much unchanged, but the difference with Afterparty one of your dialogue options only appears when you’ve been drinking, and that third dialogue option is influenced by just what you drank. You could sound like a pirate, a lovesick Romeo, a quippy movie star, or a sports-obsessed doofus. You can also choose to give yourself liquid courage or unrelenting aggression, and in some cases these choices unlock the paths forward. The characters and voice actors are up to the task, and by far the most enjoyable part of Afterparty is the denizens you come across and how they are portrayed.
There were a few criticisms of Oxenfree, and Night School seems to have taken them to heart with improvements here. Oxenfree didn’t have a whole lot of gameplay beyond the dialogue options; mostly it was just walking around, and then tuning some radios. Afterparty adds a bit more to the toolbag. While it never really feels quite like a LucasArts item-based puzzle game, there are more branching paths and mini games (such as beer pong, dancing, and building shot glass towers) to spice things up for the people who don’t just want to talk through every beat. As a result, Afterparty feels a bit more varied and less linear.
The shame is that, despite these changes, and keeping many of the same ingredients as Oxenfree (scntfc returns as composer, and some of the same voice actors return as well) Afterparty feels like a pale imitation. The problems start with the setting: Hell is populated with a number of demons and other souls, but you can interact with very few of them, and the game doesn’t offer the same rewards for exploration that Oxenfree did. Hell ends up feeling… rather pedestrian and ordinary. Barren, even. The story, too, never really embraces the setting. Satan is depicted as still smarting from his breakup with dad, but the game surprisingly avoids a lot of interrogation of what Hell represents. Here, people end up tormented eternally for minor jackassery, and Lola and Milo themselves don’t really ever learn exactly why they’re down there. The justness of Hell versus Heaven, how Demons are forced into the job of torment, and how everyone just goes drinking after work hours—it ends up feeling rather low-effort and low-stakes for the characters. Add in technical issues and poor performance on many of the platforms the game was released on, and it just feels underdone. It’s a more ambitious throw than Oxenfree, but Afterparty doesn’t really sink the shot.