You know how it is – you work all night, and when you work you don't feel all right. And when things stop feeling all right (and everything is all right), some douchebag neighbour has a party going at 3 a.m. that's keeping you awake! Well we've all been there, but in Party Hard you get to see what happens when you reach for the knife rather than the earplugs.
Party Hard is an indie arcade action game, whose single-level prototype (created for the last Global Game Jam) has lead the way for an upcoming full release this month. Looking at the preview of the initial level, it plays like a cross between Hotline Miami and Hitman; it is a pixel-art, top-down murder-rampage simulator, but requires the slowed pace and methodical approach of killing without being noticed. You play as a skinny Jason Voorhees wannabe, whose persistent sleep loss at the hands of his party animal neighbours pushes him to unleash his pointy Freudian wrath on their throats. It's a reaction I can sympathise with, because judging by how quickly the police in this game give up chasing a suspected mass-murderer, they'll be bugger all use when it comes to a noise pollution complaint.
“Party Hard plays like a cross between Hotline Miami and Hitman”
So it's a simple set-up – the floor plan of a house party and 50-odd attendees in varied fancy dress, with the simple objective: kill everyone. You have at your disposal a trusty knife, which I decided to call "Lord Stabbings", a plethora of objects that you can interact with for various environmental kills, and you also have a button to make your character dance (which has the effect of making the people around you move further away – a reaction consistent with my own personal experience dancing at parties). Gameplay consists mainly of picking the right moments to prey on the NPCs that have passed out, or otherwise wandered into secluded rooms with no other witnesses; which is vexing because it would be much less work to just decapitate the DJ and throw his disembodied head into the punch bowl. There wouldn't be much of a party left after that, I can tell you.
So it's not the most complex of gaming experiences, but the game has many small touches that lend it a generous amount of charm. Certain details of the level are randomly changed with each restart, so sometimes the back room of the house contains a meth lab, which often leads to a violent incursion from a SWAT team; sometimes an odd man in a flasher coat comes by to give you a spare set of clothes; and sometimes there's a horse. Plus, if you sneak up on an NPC who's passed out in the bath, the iconic music from Psycho plays. It all adds up to create something slightly fresh every time you replay, which is promising because I have a feeling that having enough variation is the key factor that could make or break the full game.
“the game has many small touches that lend it a generous amount of charm”
It's difficult to tell just from playing a single level, but something about the core gameplay just wasn't clicking for me. There's a reason that Hotline Miami maintains a blisteringly fast pace in its "kill everything" approach, much like there is a reason the more strategic Hitman games usually only have one or two targets per map. Having to keep up a subtle, ghost tactic in your aim to assassinate all 50 people in a crowded house is going to make it very difficult to achieve the "Silent Assassin" award. It is often a very slow and frustrating process to wait for one of your remaining victims to peel away into a secluded room for an impromptu laryngectomy, making me itch to just say "bollocks to this" and sprint around swinging a katana like the world's least subtle ninja.
Something that confused me is that some features of the game seem to have very little functionality. Again, this may change in the full game, but I couldn't find any practical use for the "listen" function, nor the ability to detect other characters' suspicion levels. Also there's virtually no drawback to bodies being discovered, making the various hiding places for corpses pretty useless. Maybe if some levels only had a smaller number of people to kill per map, it would create more uses for those mechanics; plus the levels wouldn't feel like as much of a drag and it would actually make more sense to use a slow, sneaky approach. I realise that would basically just make it a top-down 2D Hitman, but if that game gets made I would be all over it like yoghurt on my toddler's face.
“Party Hard is certainly a title to keep you eye on. . . there is a fair amount of fun to be had with its strategic stabby rampages”
Despite its problems, Party Hard is still certainly a title to keep your eye on, and in all honesty there is a fair amount of fun to be had with its strategic stabby rampages. But in my opinion, the full game will only be worth a recommendation if later levels get more creative with their objectives and the variation within maps gets fully exploited. There is the potential here for a very fun and addictive arcade game, which the preview level lets us glimpse but not fully experience. Plus if nothing else, it's at least given me a few ideas for the next party I gatecrash.