Night School made a relatively big splash with its 2016 debut Oxenfree, a ghostly story-based video game that set new standards on how dialogue can be executed in a game. The follow up to that title was always going to be an interesting one, then, as the question would be how Night School would iterate or, potentially, break away from the precedent Oxenfree set. Enter Afterparty, a new equally story-driven experience released late last year. Although it takes a much different tone than its predecessor, Afterparty proves itself to be a worthy followup and a must-play game in its own right, telling an equally funny and serious tale that can be experienced in plenty of ways.
A key thing to bear in mind about Afterparty is the fact that this isn’t so much a game that you play, in the way you do most games, as it is one you influence. The vast majority of your experience is spent simply running back and forth on a 2D plane as either Milo or Lola, interacting with the odd demon or human with a tap of ‘B’. Sprinkled within this is the occasional drinking game, such as a round of beer pong or a cup-stacking mini game, but these are more like light palette cleansers than they are fulfilling challenges of skill. Those of you looking for a more hands-on type of experience won’t find much appealing here, then, but a title such as Afterparty is more focused on delivering an excellent storytelling experience above all else. In this regard, it certainly succeeds.
A big part of this success comes from how the narrative proves to be surprisingly player-driven, with there being multiple paths, endings, and potential outcomes in any given scenario. When it’s time for your character to speak, a conversation will usually allow you one of two potential replies, with an optional third one being dependent upon the drink in your hand. Every bar you visit has four or five drinks on offer, with each one giving you the push towards a certain persona. Some drinks will give you more confidence, while others will make you prone to speak like a pirate. Experimenting with these different effects can lead to some unpredictable and deeply entertaining results, while boosting replayability across the board. Due to branching paths, you definitely can’t see all that Afterparty has to offer in a single six(ish) hour playthrough, so it’s encouraged that you keep running through it and trying different things to see how events can unfold.
The story primarily follows the plight of Milo and Lola, two recent college grads who suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves dead and trapped in hell. Milo plays the part of a people-pleasing dork with a questionable moral compass, while Lola is the cynical and wise-to-it-all sort who approaches all situations with an air of pretentious judgment. Believing that their fate simply must be a mistake, the two deny their sentencing and learn that their only hope for escaping their fate lies in challenging the devil himself. Instead of a battle of wits or a knock down drag out fight, however, they must simply out-party him in a drinking competition. As you’d likely expect, this is no small task, and the two will journey to all corners of hell on their path to winning freedom.
The premise proves to be interesting from the get go, and this is only improved with each passing hour as you explore deeper into hell. If there’s one thing that Afterparty absolutely nails, it’s the experience of embarking on a debauched and increasingly more chaotic night out on the town with some friends. The torture dimension is amusingly laid out similarly to a college town, so there are bars galore to visit and a mixture of people and demons milling about between them. You bounce around from bar to bar, playing drinking games and striking up conversation with fascinating people you’ll never see again, then stumble on to the next place to repeat the cycle. Along the way, you sometimes pick up another friend or two who accompany you on this meandering pilgrimage, before they either grow bored of you or get left behind at one of the bars.
The social dynamics of hell are especially interesting to consider given that there’s a soft divide between humans and demons. At the end of the day this is still hell, so humans generally get the short end of the stick and their status as tortured souls is a sort of collectively acknowledged reality. Everyone parties and laughs and drinks all the same, but it doesn’t take much for things to take a dark turn or for some black humor to take effect. At one point early in the story, for example, one man is celebrating his death day with all his best human and demon friends. As part of their fun there’s another man affixed to the wall in the back by several knives, who a few patrons use as a dartboard. This sharp contrast between the grotesque and the humorous proves to be quite an effective concept for keeping various scenarios interesting, and it is frequently revisited as Milo and Lola find themselves caught up in all sorts of conflict.
It’s an amusing and usually funny story, for sure, but Afterparty can dial up the drama when it needs to, adding some much-needed gravitas to the plot. For example, it’s not made clear until later exactly why Milo and Lola are in hell. At one point, they speak up and ask Satan what they did to deserve ending up in hell, and he counters by cryptically asking them what they did to deserve anything better. Then, of course, there’s a recurring supporting character named Wormhorn who acts as a “Personal Demon” to both Milo and Lola. She pops up every now and then with her bubbly and happy demeanor and targets various insecurities and regrets of both characters, shining an unflinching and harrowing spotlight on their worst flaws. For all of the jokiness and levity present on the surface, Afterparty proves to have a surprising amount of depth to its storytelling and draws you deeper in as the plot slowly reveals itself.
We feel special attention needs to be paid, too, to the overall pacing and delivery of the thousands of lines of dialogue here. Janina Gavankar and Khoi Dao give incredible performances as Lola and Milo respectively, but it’s the way in which they—along with most of the other characters—do small things like stuttering and leaving room for natural pauses that elevates the dialogue from good to great. Just about every conversation in Afterparty follows the kind of cadence and rhythm of an equivalent talk you’d hear in real life, and while that might sound like a silly thing to be praising, this is an area that many video games—even big budget AAA releases—frequently miss. It’s the sort of thing that you don’t realize until you hear a script as well-executed as this; in many ways, one could say that Afterparty sets a bar that all other narrative-focused games should aspire to hit.
Afterparty does a great job with its visual presentation, too, going all out in designing a neon-infused, suburb-like hellscape that nonetheless contains all the brimstone and lava that you would expect. Each shot looks as though it could’ve been pulled straight from the pages of the concept artist’s notebook, mixing a surprising amount of color with plenty of shadow. And though most places you go often sell a lighthearted and fun-loving atmosphere through their pulsing lights and dancing demons, there’s a fantastic sense of looming menace in the background that follows you wherever you go. Our only complaint here lies with the performance, which—docked or handheld—can dip into sub 20 FPS regions on too many occasions. It’s not enough to ruin your experience, but it does take you out of it every time a dip occurs, and it’s difficult to see why a title as relatively simple as Afterparty demands so much from the Switch hardware.
Afterparty is certainly an acquired taste, but—like a fine wine or a good beer—it’s definitely worth the effort. From beginning to end, Night School's follow up to Oxenfree is a thoroughly enjoyable narrative experience that draws you into a hellish world that you (ironically) won’t want to leave. Branching paths and a smartly implemented drink system add plenty of options for replayability, and though the performance leaves something to be desired, Afterparty proves itself to be a visual treat. We’d give Afterparty a high recommendation to anyone looking for a good story to immerse themselves in; this is one that goes down real smooth.