Party Hard intrigued me with its aesthetics and core mechanical concept (and to be honest, I really liked its title). One Steam reviewer described the game as “Hotline Miami’s slow and stealthy cousin,” and I can kind of see where he’s coming from (especially if the author meant “slow” in the “mentally challenged” sense). Like Hotline Miami, Party Hard is an ultra-violent, top down, retro-pixel art game filled with a garish neon scheme and a two word title. Unlike Hotline Miami, Party Hard annoys the shit out of me.
In my last article I discussed how playing Party Hard for 90 minutes caused me to ruminate on the nature of video game criticisms. Specifically, I wanted to know if I had to play a game all the way to its conclusion to properly review it in a written analysis. I was quite confident that despite only playing through one quarter of Party Hard’s campaign, I was absolutely qualified to write a piece on how terrible the game is, but I couldn’t think of a good justification off the top of my head for doing so. So I sat down, thought about it for a while, wrote down my thoughts, and realized that my 1,600 word explanation was long enough to constitute its own post for that week. Thus I didn’t actually end up writing anything about Party Hard.
Despite the fact that I still completely agree with everything I wrote last week, and therefore I don’t think it was necessary for me to play more of Party Hard to properly review it, I did so anyway. To be honest I didn’t really have anything else to play this week, besides Shelter 2, which only lasted a paltry 103 minutes (and despite being underdeveloped and hideously overpriced, is still a better game than Party Hard). So I powered through as much of Party Hard as I could and managed to reach level 10 (of 12) after a sum total of six hours of gameplay. I will admit that in the extra four and half hours of play time I did occasionally catch myself having brief bursts of fun, but by and large, all the extra levels did was reinforce my initial highly negative perception of the game.
Continuing the Hotline Miami comparison, Party Hard is about a loner psychopath who enters buildings and murders everyone in sight. But this new loner psychopath doesn’t get lost in fevered dreams and kill Russian mob members, instead he murders random, innocent party goers at drunken celebrations throughout the country. If a motive is ever given for the guy’s actions, I never found it, and the abysmally written story didn’t give me much of a reason to seek it.
Party Hard’s crazed protagonist is more of a Jason Voorhees to Hotline Miami’s Punisher. So the player slowly guides the maniac through multiple rooms in rather large levels as he picks off “raging” idiots one-by-one. This is primarily accomplished by an insta-kill knife attacks, but can also be done through triggering environmental traps and occasionally deploying one-time use items. If a party-goer sees the player kill someone, the cops are called and the player must evade them for a set time limit until they get bored and go away. Failure can also come at the hands of aggressive bouncers, accidental suicides with traps, getting run over by cars, and various random one-time hazards.
When I say the psycho “murders everyone in sight,” I actually mean everyone at the entire party, which usually amounts to between 40 and 60 individuals. So it’s kind of like the Hitman games, except there is no specific target; the player just has to kill every damn person in the entire level.
To explain exactly why nothing in this kind of cool set up actually works, I have to go on a bit of a digression…
I distinctly remember a couple of times in my life when I tried to show a video game to a relative or friend who didn’t play video games, and they just didn’t get it. Usually their complaints were based around some form of “game logic” which experienced gamers don’t notice. “Why is everyone standing around, taking turns stabbing each other with giant swords?” “How come that guy didn’t die after you shot him 12 times?” “You know, real life soldiers don’t have regenerating health…”
Of course I don’t care about those things because I understand that video games work as abstractions of reality. Playing a truly realistic simulation of being a solider in World War 2 would be ugly, brutal, unfair, and worst of all, incredibly boring. I don’t want to do that. So I get that developers instead strive to make games which abstractly simulate real life experiences by essentially toning down the worst parts and amplifying the best parts of particular activities. In the case of a WW2 game, this means maintaining the thrill of combat and the inherent coolness of guns and explosions, while muting the true horrors of being in warfare and entirely omitting the long, boring slog of endless tedium that war actually is for most soldiers the vast majority of the time.
Getting back to Party Hard…
The main problem with Party Hard is that the developers cranked up their level of abstraction to 11. Not only does nobody in Party Hard’s universe act remotely realistically, they don’t act with any coherent motivations at all. The result is a game built entirely around trying to predict NPC actions, where it is impossible to predict NPC actions. The system of interactions between the player-character, dead bodies, traps, the party guests, the bouncers, the medics, and the cops, is bewilderingly complicated by way of excruciatingly stupid. When I play Party Hard, suddenly I feel like the ignorant relative who doesn’t understand game logic watching some dumb gaming machine run its kid’s toy.
Let’s see, party guests will freak out if they see you murder someone, so they’ll call the cops. That makes sense. But they will also freak out and report you to the cops if they just see you near a dead body, even if there are multiple people near the same body. And they won’t call the cops if they see you push someone off a building or into a giant fan. Oh, and the medics do not give a shit what you do, even if they see you murdering someone they won’t call the police. If the cops do show up, they will chase you down, and if they catch you, it’s an instant-failure. But sometimes if you just avoid the cop for long enough, he just gives up and goes away, while other times he will chase you for all of eternity. Other times the cops will completely randomly come after you as they clean up bodies. Other times they will arrest you just for being in their path on the way to a body even if they have no reason to suspect you of being the killer. Other times they will arrest other random people at the party for no reason. You can also pick up a phone and automatically dial a random number which somehow calls an alien space craft, or zombies, or some such other nonsense to the party. I never really understood how that worked. There are magical plumbers who show up and break these magical tunnels which teleport you from one side of the map to the other, but only if you use the magic tunnels to escape from the cops. And you can’t stop the plumbers because they’re immune to stabbings. Then there are the bouncers who will beat you to death on sight for no reason whatsoever. And no one at the party gives a shit. But no one also gives a shit if 40 or 50 people at a given party have already been brutally murdered, because everyone always hangs around the party indefinitely until you kill them regardless…
It’s a fucking mess. Nothing makes sense. Nothing works. Sometimes it seems like the game is going for a sort of comically surreal set-up where a bunch of wild partiers will do literally anything to continue partying (and that would be fine), but then everything flies out the window when none of the NPCs act by any recognizable rules. And so it becomes completely arbitrary chaos where victory is more dependent upon luck and a willingness to press the retry button endlessly than any legitimate skill.
The especially painful problem is that the whole mess could maybe work if only the levels weren’t so damn long. Party Hard has the same ultra-lethal, instant-failure style of defeat as Hotline Miami, except the levels are 10+ minutes long. That’s why I managed to crawl through only three stages in 90 minutes. The player can meticulously pick apart a whole party for eight minutes with perfect stealth and immediately lose all of his progress because he accidentally crosses paths with a bouncer in the middle of a crowded room. The effect is infuriating and prohibited me from conjuring the mental energy necessary to play for more than 15 minutes straight.
On top of all that, the game-feel (or kinesthetics) is abysmal. The player character is somehow the single slowest sprite in the entire game. If a party guest sees you murder someone, you won’t be fast enough to chase the snitch down before he or she gets to a phone. Then when you’re fleeing from a cop you can only (barely) outrun him while using a sprint function which lasts for literally 3 or 4 seconds, but you typically need to outrun the cops for 30 or 40 seconds. This means that surviving a police chase is almost entirely dependent upon your slow-ass character being lucky enough to be on the opposite side of the level from whichever one of the random entry points the cop happens to use during a particular arrival. Don’t you love when winning a game is dependent entirely on arbitrary luck?
Merely walking across a level (which you will have to do constantly to bounce between the rare secluded spots to pick up kills) takes seemingly forever, especially when you’re doing it for the thousandth time in the hundredth replay of the same level. Plus it’s difficult to figure out if the player character is close enough to a victim to perform the basic stabbing attack, trap signifiers are constantly muddled, and I can’t tell which blurry, distant objects I can walk over, and which I can’t.
The painfully boring levels are all bookended by an equally boring story displayed through a painfully amateurish combination of slide shows and voice overs. After each level the player hears a brief bit of an interrogation between a police officer and an ex-cop who hunts the psycho killer. Across the ten levels I played almost nothing happens. The story is in almost the exact same place as it started save for a single plot point and the obvious modifier that the ex-cop gets obsessive. It might all work as forgettable schlock if the voice acting wasn’t absolutely awful. We’re talking sub-James Sunderland level acting. But at least Jame’s empty, forced cadence had the advantage of sounding eerie in a horror game, whereas whoever was pulled off the streets to do Party Hard’s voice work sounds like he have never spoken into a microphone before.
If I have to force myself to say something good about the game, I’ll begrudgingly admit that I like some of the music and the traps can be amusing.
Again in imitation of Hotline Miami (not that I mind a decent copy-cat game as long as it is well-made and brings something new to the table), Party Hard uses fast, 80’s synth music to situate the player in its equally gaudy visual aesthetics. While Party Hard’s soundtrack is nowhere near as good or memorable as Hotline Miami’s, it does have some fun beats which make a few levels marginally more tolerable. In fitting with the slower gameplay, Party Hard uses slightly softer and more upbeat tracks instead of Hotline Miami’s pounding techno frenzy. But the tracks are also too short and loop way too often in Party Hard’s excruciatingly long levels. Plus some songs are just plain boring.
Then there are the Hitman-style environmental traps which can be used to kill party guests. The player can rig sound speakers to explode, make horses kick people, poison the fruit punch, electrocute a pool of water, etc. Figuring out how to use the traps to cause maximum damage can be fun, but all too often there is no real way to amplify a trap’s power. So there is nothing better to do then walk throughout the level, set every trap in rapid succession, and hope it does maximum damage. Worse yet, the traps will never kill more than 25% of your targets, thereby rendering them a mere support system rather than a core component of most levels. Instead the player has to suffice with blowing up a bunch of speakers right from the start, and then endlessly make trips between two or three isolated locations to get singular kills so as not to tip off the cops and endure another embarrassingly slow police “chase.”
Party Hard is awful. It may be based off a fairly interesting core concept, but the developers failed in nearly every possible way to make it work. The game is a mess of bad decisions which overlap to create one of the most annoying to play games I have ever brought myself to play for an extended period of time. Even at its weird-ass price of $12.89, I cannot recommend Party Hard to anyone.