Developer: Night School Studio
Publisher: Night School Studio
Format: PC, MAC, Xbox One (reviewed)
Released: January 15, 2016
Oxenfree is a beautiful amalgamation of complicated and relatable emotions. From the intimate interactions that play out between members of the ’80s style infused cast, to more taxing situations, such as teenagers navigating through the tangled web of grief, Oxenfree excels in grounding its strong emotional core. Night School Studios’ debut game is one chock-full of smart twists, mystery, and honest relationships that lend a sense of unwavering commitment to one another when things begin to grow suspicious. It’s all presented in gorgeous, painterly aesthetics and is moved along by a simple, yet effective, branching dialogue system that kept me on my toes throughout my adventure. Oxenfree runs into some noticeable pacing issues that took me out of what is otherwise a consistently engrossing experience, however, the title manages to prevail through its weaknesses, landing it a spot as one of the first great games of the new year. Set on an ominous decommissioned military island, Oxenfree follows a group of high school students as they embark upon an overnight party in hopes of bonding and drinking the night away. Yet, those plans are quickly derailed as a foreboding supernatural rift is opened, turning the night upside down for the group. Steering through the ensuing pandemonium, you play as Alex, a teenage girl who’s coming to terms with her feelings about the passing of her brother, while simultaneously trying to acquaint herself with her new stepbrother, Jonas. In the wake of maintaining the merits of a supernatural thriller, Oxenfree chooses to capitalize on its situational tension in a way that demonstrates great confidence. Subverting the various outcomes of a stereotypical work of horror, Oxenfree finds itself most at home when developing its cast of characters, prioritizing their emotionally complex nature over cheap jump scares and predictable twists.
Much of this is achieved subtlety, as conversations casually flow between characters, allowing the player complete and total control of Alex’s dialogue choices. Depending on your choices, Oxenfree adjusts outcomes along its timeline in the form of twists and character interactions, building a sense of dexterity that is never pushed in your face. You’ve no clue what line of dialogue carries more weight over another and no reminder that your aggressive remark will be remembered by a certain character. This was a refreshing change to see implemented and a presentational method I’d love to see adopted in other adventure games with similar goals. Alex’s relationship with the cast–most specifically Jonas–is Oxenfree’s biggest focus, and its well deserved. Going from newly acquainted souls wound up in the awkwardness of the situation, to trusting friends, much of Oxenfree’s best arcs come from the two step-siblings getting to know one another in the midst of their individual tragedies, as well as the supernatural mayhem surrounding them.Oxenfree’s biggest strides of quality come from embracing the small, intricate details at play. Worldbuilding is a huge contributor to this dedication of detail, as each new environment begs to be explored, upturning tucked away narrative bits. A series of highlights find players tasked with discovering ways to escape erie time loops, which revert conversations, progress, and different characters’ confidence. Oxenfree rarely provides the opportunity for players to be settled past the point of making contact with the supernatural forces, creating for a consistently tense and unpredictable adventure. Nonetheless, it’s the smaller moments of honest interactions and creepy foreshadowing which offer the most interesting impact. Oxenfree is a game very much driven by tone, and it’s the way it creatively plays with these details that keeps the short but sweet experience, fresh.
From a gameplay standpoint, Oxenfree approaches things simple, only relying upon a few easy-to-grasp mechanics to move the narrative needle forward. The way you interact with the environment is very similar to that of the way you would a point and click adventure game, choosing from dialogue bubbles and investigating various objects that can be examined. Puzzle solving is kept fairly rudimentary from a challenge perspective, however it doesn’t lower the intellect of the overall experience. In possession of a radio that somehow facilitates the capability to communicate with supernatural forces, Alex is able to crack all sorts of puzzles strewn about the island. Many of these endeavors end in making contact with the mysterious entities haunting the island, whereby triggering a sequence of hair-raising audiovisual cues in the form of static video playback and sinister voices. It’s all rather creepy, for the fear of uncertainty and menacing individuals looming over the island, seep into its worn cracks, in turn doing the same to the psyche of the cast, as well as the player themselves.Conclusion: At its heart, Oxenfree is a coming-of-age story driven by characters, dialogue, and most importantly the array of emotions that come with growing up. It takes its themes of loss and acceptance seriously, presenting them with a coat of honesty that shows they’re coming from a genuine place. The pace is slowed by some prolonged gaps between narrative moments, creating a few frustrating lulls. In some instances, dialogue feels disconnected from typical teenage banter, chipping away at Oxenfree’s wash of authenticity. Disguised as a spooky ghost story, Oxenfree is far deeper on a philosophical level than it may initially appear. Subtlety is indeed the golden key to unlocking Oxenfree’s more emotionally gripping moments, and it’s one I intend to keep trying in new locks.
Connect with me on Twitter and let me know your thoughts on Oxenfree. Find me @BraxHaugen.