Note: This review was written in cooperation with Future Sack editor Annagram.
There are many exploration adventure games these days, but Night School Studio’s Oxenfree adds an interesting sci-fi teenie drama twist to the genre and provides enough scares for the late Halloween special.
(USA 2016, developer/publisher: Night School Studio, platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4)
A group of teenagers explores an island and discovers a dark secret about an experiment gone wrong that will send their minds and bodies through different times.
Good writing with round teenage characters
Writing witty teenie dialogue without clichés isn’t easy, as it often ends up with stereotypical characters acting silly or being angst-ridden. While the game certainly has its fair share of these moments, the fun and introspective lines are realistic and give the player a chance to soon establish their own attitudes towards certain persons, either leading to negative or positive responses. These can change the course of the story and how each character reacts to the main protagonist. As decisions of where to go, what to do or who to talk to and go with are frequent, dialogues never seem like filler material, because the way these are connected to the flow of gameplay becomes natural.
It’s important that interaction with other characters is fluent, because there isn’t much else to do on the island except walking around, climbing and jumping at certain points (which never reach a level of platformer precision and timing). Reacting to dialogue options is essential, and it’s here where frustration sets in, because there’s usually a very limited amount of time to read responses and select them. It’s easy to miss something, especially since certain replies or decisions aren’t always clear.
Different story branches
The story itself leaves many questions unanswered, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it’s open to interpretation. Playing through the game again with different choices is made possible by showing statistics of other players’ decisions at the end, just as in The Walking Dead: Season 1. Playing through individual chapters isn’t an option, and automatic savegames can result in going through various dialogue and long walks again.
No puzzles, but a lot of genre content
Puzzles are almost non-existent. Even if some objects can be picked up and interacted with, their solutions are always obvious, and as the game is very linear, goals are usually quite clear, although reaching certain places with consulting a badly drawn map isn’t. As one can’t simply fast-travel to these places, walking through the same scenery can become a bit repetitive. However, there are often unexpected flashbacks and supernatural occurrences that shake things up. The atmosphere ranges from warm camaraderie to loneliness and fear, so that it isn’t easy to categorize the game as either drama, horror or sci-fi.
Going from places to places also offers the option to use the radio, one of the most important tools in the game, as one often has to tune in to a specific station to open doors or interact with the environment. Even without these triggers, it’s possible to listen to broadcasts that give insight into the island’s rich history, while some Morse codes provide secret messages. All this shows that the developer doesn’t rely on linear storytelling but invites the player to explore his or her surroundings and decide how much about the game’s characters, setting and story he or she wants to discover.
Visual and auditory experience
The graphics feature a mixture of comic book-like character designs and naturalistic environments with some nice lighting and weather effects. It’s not the most refined engine, but the use of zoom-ins and zoom-outs gives it a cinematic touch, while dream-like and nightmarish sequences with sudden environmental changes and the use of darkness and light provides a few jumpscares. The audio presentation is also great with very good voice acting and a moody soundtrack that is subtle and varied enough to complement the story sequences.
Oxenfree is one of those few games that remain in the player’s mind long after the credits roll. This isn’t because of the puzzles, as there aren’t any, or of the art direction, which is good but not mindblowing. It’s because of how story, setting and characters draw the player in and make him or her guess what it all means. There isn’t much to do gameplay-wise, the constant talking and some decisions are rather vague, but it still remains an unforgettable gaming experience.
Buy the Xbox One game on
the Xbox store
Buy the PS4 game on
the PSN store
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