It’s 3 a.m. You wake up to the sounds of muffled music and drunken yells thumping against your walls from a nearby party. We’ve all been there before, and yes, it can be extremely frustrating, but I doubt many people’s first instinct is to go on a murderous rampage and kill everyone. In theory, a game centered on mayhem like this should amount to some savage thrills, but unfortunately, that is not the case with Party Hard.
The story begins from the perspective of John West, the detective in charge of finding the “party hard serial killer”, as he recounts how the killings began. After a brief cutscene, the player takes over as the killer, and the cross-country rampage begins. The plot here is surprisingly bare bones and plays out in cutscenes between stages. Each one is filled with cheesy one-liners and occasionally laughable voice acting that made it difficult to take the morbid subject matter seriously. The developers could have used these scenes to build John West’s character and provide deeper insight into his conflicted perspective, but instead, West spends the majority of the dialogue merely detailing each murder scene for a mysterious interviewer named Darius. The story briefly touches on interesting concepts such as utopianism, nihilism and utilitarianism, but they are never fully explored, making the entirety of the narrative feel surface level at best.
Upon booting up Party Hard, the first thing I noticed was its aesthetic. The game harkens back to arcade games of the 90s and remains committed to this aesthetic throughout its approximately 10-hour campaign. From the pixelated graphic style to the mechanical, synth-driven soundtrack, I can see Party Hard evoking strong feelings of nostalgia from players who grew up playing games in that era. Each level has a different theme and there is enough variety to keep things interesting from a purely visual standpoint. However, some stages, such as the rooftop and pool parties, were the same basic layout with new decorations and set pieces layered on top, which felt lazy and uninspired.
Going in, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Party Hard in terms of gameplay. It is dubbed as a “tactical strategy” game by the developers, and it fits that description… for the most part. Essentially, the game is a top-down (and stripped) version of classic stealth games like Hitman. The player can perform a few basic actions such as kill, pick up bodies, activate traps, and of course, dance. The only goal here is to kill the 30-50 guests at the party without getting caught by the police. For the first level or so, this formula works well and clearing a stage, one victim at a time, can provide some genuine excitement. However, the excitement does not last long.
Party Hard provides no sense of progression whatsoever. There are no new abilities or weapons to unlock, which means every level plays nearly identical to the last. Each stage can be approached with the same strategy of deploying traps to kill your victims or waiting for them to wander into a secluded area and silently taking them out. There is some variation in the form of in-game items such as smoke grenades, stun bombs, and a spare set of clothing that can help you out of a tight spot, but there are only a few available and they are recycled throughout the campaign. There are also several alternate characters you can unlock by completing certain objectives, but they all have the same basic move-set with only slight visual alterations.
The most interesting twist in Party Hard comes in the form of phone calls the player can make. Once you have located the phone in a stage, you can call in people to drastically shift the dynamic of the party. One my favorite calls summoned a group of zombies that slowly turned all the other guests into fellow flesh eaters, causing them to no longer care about my murderous behavior.
Though the gameplay remains the same throughout, there are noticeable inconsistencies in level design and difficulty that feel unintentional and can be outright frustrating. For example, I spent over an hour in an early mission failing over and over again, whereas I completed one of the late-game missions in under a minute. Additionally, some stages were so open in their layout or had so few traps that finishing them felt nearly impossible. There is no checkpoint system within missions, which led to multiple instances where I had a few guests remaining only to be thwarted by the police and have to start from scratch. It falls in an unpleasant limbo of being overly difficult without feeling rewarding. Each time I had to start over after failing a mission, it felt like a chore than anything else.
Party Hard presents some interesting ideas and has a promising start, but it sours quickly due to repetitive game design and a frustrating inconsistency in difficulty. Some of the only instances of pure joy come from activating a trap at the perfect time to cause an enormous amount of casualties in a single moment. But even when an event like this happens, the frame rate drops significantly or the game freezes momentarily, severely detracting from the impact it could have had. If you are enamored with the retro arcade aesthetic that Party Hard has to offer, there could be some value here. Otherwise, it might be best to sit this party out altogether.
I am a writer and journalist based in San Francisco. When I'm not getting lost in expansive open-world RPGs, immersive first-person shooters or any other type of game that grabs my interest, I usually spend my time taking photos and playing music. Two of my all-time favorite games are Persona 4 Golden and Metal Gear Solid 3.