AKA "Hell Ain't All It's Cracked Up To Be"
To start things off: Oxenfree, Afterparty developer Night School Studio's last big game, was definitely my GOTY 2016. Its "walk-and-talk" mechanic felt like a quantum leap beyond the stale Telltale-style "let's sit here while you ponder"-type choices available in other games. As a fan of story-driven games, it hit every note perfectly for me—especially the time-bending way it approached the new game+ mode for repeat playthroughs. Visually, it was stunning, the music (by scntfc) was amazing, and to me, it's the best game in the surprisingly-populated "story-based games where teenage girls encounter the supernatural in the Pacific Northwest" genre.
So my expectations were high going into Afterparty, and in the end, I felt a bit let down. Afterparty feels like a step forward in some areas, but a step back in others.
The premise is pretty simple: best friends Lola and Milo are celebrating the end of college one moment, and then the next, find themselves in Hell. Things take a bit of time to ramp up, but soon you've learned you are, in fact, very dead. The only way out of Hell is through the Devil—you'll need to challenge him to a drinking game. Of course, this being a video game, you'll need to perform some side challenges before you get a shot at the Prince o' Darkness himself, and by the time you get to Satan... well, your chance to get out of hell 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. Do you want to sound like a pirate? Like a transatlantic-accent-laden movie star? Do you want to be aggressive and throw profanity? Or try to butter someone up with a lovable party-hard persona? These are your options, and in a few cases (perhaps too rarely) they become the real way to opening up paths as you go.
The other fun wrinkle to Oxenfree's formula is that Afterparty gives you a lot more hints about how your choices are shaping out. At times, Lola and Milo's personal demon (voiced by Oxenfree's Erin Yvette) pops up to show them the choices they've made and berate them for their missteps. It's a nagging feeling that helps make it unclear if you made the right choice along the way, although (spoiler alert) as with many of these games, most choices only affect ancillary aspects of the story, not the main plot points. While there's no new game+ mode (at least as of writing), the game does offer more replayability, letting you take alternate paths to reach the end.
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.
There are some downsides, however. Hell is populated with a number of denizens, and so rather than the forlorn spookiness of the island in Oxenfree, you've got a backdrop of chattering demons and humans. I was a bit let down that the world of Hell was quieter than I expected despite this; you can only talk to very few of these bystanders, so for the most part they're set dressing. I regularly walked to the very ends of areas and was disappointed that there was nothing there for my trouble; I just had to walk back (ever so slowly, because there's no way to run or fast travel) disappointed. It feels like a missed opportunity; whereas there was a lot of reasons to go out of your way to explore Oxenfree, hell feels far more barren than it should.
In the same vein, I felt like the story never really embraced the setting. While the fall of Satan gets some time spent on it, we never really hear a lot from Satan on that score, despite it being the driving element of the plot, and we never really critically interrogate the world itself—how people end up in Hell for remarkably trivial slights, or how the demons are stuck in a similar endless cycle of torture. We don't really even get a sense of what eternal damnation really means, because the main characters aren't really threatened by it at any time. It feels like a high-concept idea that just didn't spend enough time deepening the world. It's a more ambitious throw than Oxenfree, but doesn't really sink the shot.
My biggest complaint, however, was performance. Rather than the painterly 2D landscapes of Oxenfree, the entire environs of Afterparty are 3D (though the gameplay is still experienced in a 2.5D style.) On a first-generation Xbox One, the game stutters hard more than it doesn't just walking around the environments. The choppiness heavily detracts from the game's presentation, especially when it usually doesn't seem like there's all that much going on to justify the stutters, and on one or two occasions I missed conversation or button prompts because of it.
On the achievement side, there are a number of "do X in a single play through"-type achievements with counters that don't reset on a new run, so it can be difficult to keep track. There are also three different possible endings, which seem to require separate playthroughs (some people in the achievement solution comments have suggested they had success immediately quitting the game and deleting their saves to avoid replaying, but I had no such luck.) While the achievements are occasionally frustrating, they're generally fairly easy, and you can mostly spend time immersed in the story.
Overall, while disappointed with the game, I still enjoyed my time in the weird world of Hell—even if it wasn't as weird as I supposed I hoped. As this game is on Game Pass currently, if you're a subscriber there's no reason not to sink some time into this game if you're a fan of story-driven games.