It’s a bit hard to not constantly compare a studio’s second outing to their big debut—it might even be unfair to even do so. But Night School Studio’s Afterparty is a clear attempt of an evolution of the style they established in their 2016 game Oxenfree, a game that I admire quite a lot. It uses the same narrative techniques as the earlier title while adding a new layer to dialogue choices. Even with these additions and modifications to the formula, Afterparty comes across as a sophomore slump.
The premise of Afterparty is exciting, the characters are distinct and likable, and the aesthetic is quite attractive; I just couldn’t help but feel that the game and the narrative were floundering with all of these tools, making for a game that felt less than satisfactory by the time I finished my first playthrough. To compare it to other pieces of media other than Night School’s previous game, the game overall felt like a mix of The World’s End, Coco, and The Good Place, though the sum was not as good as its parts.
I would still recommend anyone who appreciated Oxenfree to check out Afterparty, while preparing themselves for a totally different tone and attitude—and possibly a number of technical issues as well.
Dual protagonists Lola and Milo are dead. How they died, and why they are meant to suffer an eternity of damnation in Hell, are unknown to this duo, but clearly there must have been a mistake, they think. They find out from a friendly demon cabbie by the name of Sam that informs them of a means to escape—all they have to do is out-party and outdrink Satan himself. But the journey is long and winding, which gives Milo and Lola ample opportunity to work out their friendship.
Their relationship is not a romantic one, something that I appreciate because it goes to show just how powerful and complex platonic relationships and platonic love can be. They air grievances that they never got a chance to when they were topside and they support each other while also occasionally making jokes at each other’s expense. Afterparty frequently switches you between the sardonic Lola and the socially anxious Milo, essentially allowing you to decide the direction of their duo dynamic.
Other than Sam, the two will meet a number of supporting demon characters, with Satan being introduced about a third of the way into the game. In terms of demeanor and behavior, all of these demons are as friendly (and occasionally crude and profane) as regular humans can be, with their casual references to torture and damnation towards humans making for a bit of dark humor. But as fun as these characters may be, something felt off about the dialogue in this game, something that felt more evident when the player is put in control of the narrative scenarios.
Like Oxenfree, Afterparty is a walking and talking game. Players navigate the neon nightlife locales of Hell through 2.5D sidescrolling, and dialogue prompts give two to four responses to choose from with the face buttons. The gimmick here is the drinking aspect of the game; as a good chunk of Afterparty has you in various bars and pubs, there will be a wide selection of mixed drinks for Lola and Milo to choose from. Becoming inebriated from these drinks will add an additional dialogue choice, with different drinks having different effects on these choices.
There are revolting and questionable “hellcohol” drinks, from the “Bloody Stool” to the “Literally Acid.” They each come with a fancy and funny description, but more importantly, they all have a trait—”Liquid Courage” is probably the most common one in most drinks, with others allowing for traits like aggression or pomposity, and some giving quirky traits like speaking like a pirate or delivering cheesy jokes like a vaudeville comedian. While these dialogue branches may change the tone of a conversation, I struggle to think of any situations where they actually shifted the direction of the narrative.
While Oxenfree had a radio to tamper with every once in a while, Afterparty instead offers drinking games as side events in between the usual walkin’ n talkin’. Players will be introduced to a variation of beer pong early on, with gameplay being fairly straight forward; you’ll have a short and limited indicator for your throwing arc and you take turns trying to get a ping pong ball in your opponent’s red cups.
Players will have to dance for some story-critical moments, which is a simple memory-rhythm game where you press the same face buttons as your dance opponent. And then there’s stacking, where the player takes shots and has to stack the shot glasses to a certain height; as you get drunker, the tougher the game gets. This particular game wasn’t explained quite well, leading to quick losing rounds.
The occasional splotches with the drinking mechanics were nothing compared to the larger technical hindrances I encountered during my playthroughs; even after a pre-release patch, there were some egregious problems that made it difficult to enjoy the experience as a whole. While I do recognize that Afterparty has a lot more going on visually than in Oxenfree, the fact that Night School Studio attempted to evolve their gameplay and style while their game engine failed to accommodate these changes and additions doesn’t bode too well.
Between framerate hitches to the game straight up crashing a few times, the technical problems were plentiful. At one point, Milo and Lola actually repeated a full conversation with essential character development about an hour after they held that conversation, at a completely different part of the game. While it was neat to see Afterparty take more advantage of the background and foreground, with background characters and actions amuck, this seemed to have contributed to some slowdown, with the game simply stopping for a few seconds while the background audio persisted.
During my second playthrough, which occurred post-patch, I encountered a game-breaking glitch where the game got stuck at a drink menu; the analog sticks and face buttons were not functional. I paused and quit the game, and went back to my save file. I had to go through a long dialogue exchange yet again, and upon getting to the drink menu again, I had the same glitch—except this time, I couldn’t even pause the game. I closed out, and I haven’t opened Afterparty since then.
I’d be willing to look past the technical issues, but there was an overall feeling of disconnect that I just couldn’t reconcile. I had experienced this to a minor degree in Oxenfree, but something felt off about the vocal performances in Afterparty. While I did enjoy Janina Gavankar as Lola, Khoi Dao as Milo, and Ashly Burch as Sam, a combination of odd voice direction and sound mixing made it harder for me to fully immerse myself in this visually-impressive depiction of Hell.
I understand the vibe that Night School was going for—it’s Hell, but very much analogous to our society, the same way something like Futurama would ground the far-fetched future while also still satirizing modern civilization. At the same time, by making all of the demons sound like normal human beings despite their beastly appearances, there is rarely a moment where it feels like Afterparty is thinking outside the box. Most of the character voices didn’t match the characters, didn’t blend in with the environment, and all sounded like they were all recorded isolated in a recording studio rather than inhabiting a solid vision and interpretation of Hell.
It doesn’t help that dialogue still overlaps unnaturally, with some awkward pauses in between characters speaking. I couldn’t tell if that was a technical issue, but some conversations feel inorganic as a result. It hampers Afterparty more so than Oxenfree, because while the latter title is a bit more dramatic and atmospheric, the former title goes for a more comedic tone, and all comedic timing is totally lost in this format.
Despite my excitement, Afterparty was a comedown from its spiritual predecessor. The parts are all there, but the core script lacks wit, and the developments in Milo and Lola’s friendship ultimately lacked catharsis. This story could have left an impact—not a lot of games focus on young, platonic relationships, the confusion of friends as they grow apart in their 20s, and the pitfalls of party and drinking culture. The opening showed much potential, but like a lot of parties I’ve been to, this shindig was one that I didn’t mind clearing out of by the end.