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Review: Oxenfree

(Image by Tim Bowman/Quarter Disorder)

(Image by Tim Bowman/Quarter Disorder)

A group of teenagers take a supernatural ride through the paranormal as they transition into life’s next phase in Oxenfree, a game where everyone has plenty to say.

Developer: Night School Studio

Publisher: Night School Studio

Platforms: PC (Steam, Windows 10), Xbox One [reviewed], Mac, PlayStation 4 (later date)

Release Date: January 15, 2016

Current MSRP: $19.99

Five teenagers arrive by boat to Edwards Island, a tourist attraction once home to a military installation used during World War II. The island is set on the coast of a fictional town in the Pacific Northwest, a yearly destination for friends to stay up all night, get drunk and tell stories by the beach.

You play as Alex, a strong-willed teenage girl with blueish hair who is unsure of where her life will go after graduation. She meets her new stepbrother Jonas for the first time during the trip, probably the worst time ever to meet an important family member under their circumstances.

Over the course of one night the group gets thrown into a nightmare. They unintentionally open a portal to another dimension by playing around with Alex’s pocket radio while exploring a cave near the beach. When trying to uncover the mystery behind it, they face the wrath of the island’s dark history.

Oxenfree is the first release from Night School Studio, an independent developer started in 2014 that’s based in Glendale, California. The studio’s founders are Adam Hines and Sean Krankel, two cousins who previously worked at Telltale Games and Disney. The game is also in collaboration with Skybound Entertainment, a company that produces a variety of media. Robert Kirkman co-founded Skybound, the creator of comic book series like “The Walking Dead” and “Invincible.”

Oxenfree is an adventure game best played in as few sittings as possible. The studio describes Oxenfree as a combination of “Freaks and Geeks (1999)” and Poltergeist (1982).” The name comes from the old saying Olly olly oxen free used in games of hide and seek, yelled out when it’s safe to come out. It’s a clever title once you get deep into the game’s story.

Speak Your Mind

There’s a ton of talking in Oxenfree. For its length, the game is jam-packed with conversations. Usually that would spell a slow death over the course of most other games, but the way Night School Studio crafted the story and its core dialogue system is instead incredibly rewarding to experience. With around 12,000 lines of dialogue according to the developers, Oxenfree doesn’t keep quiet.

Oxenfree features three branching dialogue options for Alex. Conversations are almost seamlessly woven into gameplay. The game’s conversations are fired at a rapid pace. Everything happens on the fly. There aren’t big moments where it pauses for a major decision. There are no traditional cut-scenes in the game where the player loses control of Alex. Even when walking around you can still select what to say and other characters keep talking too.

Oxenfree might have some of the more natural dialogue seen recently in a game. These mostly feel like real conversations people could have with each other. Based on your responses Alex can be friendly, rude, angry, supportive or a sarcastic jerk to her friends. It’s not always obvious what choices will elicit positive or negative responses from Alex. You don’t have any time to think of the best choice to make as the options begin to quickly fade away. If you can’t decide what to say, Alex voices nothing at all.

A lot of walking is done on the island, with the characters going from area to area while still having their discussions. You never see the characters’ faces up close during conversations. Everything is seen from a distance. The 3D character models are set against the island’s 2D backgrounds. This allows for more dialogue to happen since there’s such a wide view of the area, which doesn’t get distracting when moving from place to place. Solid speech bubbles with colors representing each character pop up when that person talks. You can also make out their body expressions as they move and chat.

(Image by Tim Bowman/Quarter Disorder)

(Image by Tim Bowman/Quarter Disorder)

Unlike most other games, in Oxenfree you can immediately interrupt another character when they’re talking. Instead of waiting for a cut-scene to end or someone to finish their lines, you can throw in an opinion mid-sentence. Sometimes the other characters will continue on their dialogue afterwards or the conversation will move forward with Alex’s new opinions. Most times it doesn’t wait for your selection before someone else continues with the discussion.

You can also keep silent, actively deciding not to select any of the three choices. The other characters notice when Alex doesn’t contribute to the conversation. Instead of the scene continuing as normal, they will slowly drift off, wondering why she isn’t responding. This plays into how real conversations actually work, because no one likes talking to a wall or feeling ignored.

Sometimes a characters face will appear in a person’s speech bubble after one of them says something. These seems to show the person’s relationship to that particular character or how they will remember that moment, although the game never makes clear what these icons actually mean.

Each character in Oxenfree has their own dynamic and personality. Alex is a strong character to play as, the person they all turn to for guidance. Jonas is the guy with the troubled past that’s now in a new family with Alex. There’s the girl with an attitude named Clarissa, who constantly rags on Alex passive aggressively. Ren is Alex’s best friend, the guy who can’t stay serious and likes his pot brownies. Then there’s Nona, the quiet girl who Ren has a crush on. Some of them are great friends, others just tolerate each other.

Selecting dialogue options not only affects the flow of a conversation but the relationships you have with the characters, their bonds with each other and what paths the game will take. Alex can push her new stepbrother away or use the night’s experiences to bond as a family. Ren talks a lot, to the point where you wonder why he’s even Alex’s best friend. You can blow his cover or help keep his love for Nona under wraps. Clarissa is bitter towards Alex, having dated her brother in the past. You can mend the fence with her or create even more animosity between them.

During certain points of the game you can choose who to spend the most time with and who to favor as a friend. Photos are taken of the friends after key scenes in the game. These photos change depending on the interactions chosen during conversations. The conversations can get overwhelming with them moving along so quickly but it makes the player pay closer attention to aim for the relationships they want to form.

Watch gameplay of Oxenfree:

Tune In the Supernatural

Edwards Island is a character in of itself. The island is explored through its vibrant 2D environments. There are several locations to move across when searching for a way home, from a forest to abandoned facilities. The characters can explore inside these buildings, showing more details of the island and its history.

Oxenfree’s visual style is perfect for the game. Created by lead artist Heather Gross at Night School, the various areas of the island are filled with spooky yet calming vibes. Gross did an amazing job with the stages and using the artwork to represent the game’s themes. Oxenfree’s visuals are beautiful, making a world that feels alive when everything around the characters is deserted.

Oxenfree’s fantastic music adds even more to its atmosphere, which is created by C. Andrew Rohrmann, known by the name SCNTFC. He also did the music for last year’s Galak-Z from 17-Bit. Some of the soundtrack definitely has an “X-Files” vibe to it, which works great considering the game’s similarities to the show. The music gets you into this mood of an otherworldly experience.

The supernatural elements of the game are represented seriously and form an intriguing storyline. Oxenfree dives into the paranormal, with the ghosts of the island fighting against the teenagers. Hauntings, possessions and spirits rattle the teenagers’ morale and identity. Areas do get dark and twisted, taken over by the evil.

The island’s other dimension works into gameplay too. The screen will go crazy in certain moments, becoming fuzzy and distorted like a bad radio wave. The characters’ bodies turn into rag dolls, consumed by an unworldly force. Voices become demonic, taunting and rambling against their friends. There’s also some time-bending scenes, with characters re-experiencing the past or repeating themselves in a ghostly loop.

Alex’s pocket radio is the cause of all the chaos. It’s also used to interact with the stages. Some radio frequencies can bring out the spirits of the island when they make their presence felt. The radio plays an important part of Oxenfree’s gameplay and storyline. Oxenfree contrasts antiquated technology like radios, wave frequencies and maps with teenage angst and uncertainty. This radio aspect is a terrific way to incorporate the paranormal themes.

(Image by Tim Bowman/Quarter Disorder)

(Image by Tim Bowman/Quarter Disorder)

The radio can be played with at any moment in the game, even during conversations. There are old radio shows that play from the World War II era, the time when the island was still used for military purposes. Old-timey instrumental music, sound effects and radio acts are creepy, hinting at the group’s predicaments. There’s even a radio message from Franklin D. Roosevelt making a speech to Congress about the U.S. involvement in the war.

There are a few puzzles in the game but nothing too difficult. Finding important items to advance a scene is simple. Playing certain radio dials can bust open locked doors using old military security. The game updates the time after certain storyline moments, with the group’s efforts to find their friends and fight against the other dimension going into the early morning hours.

Some objects around the island can be interacted with, which will spur observations from Alex and the other characters. Around the island Alex will need to climb over rocks, around walls and up ladders. This platforming can sometimes be awkward, with the other characters either clipping Alex or waiting for her to finish before moving along. The characters do walk around kind of slowly, which allows for these full conversations to finish. These movements can slow down the game’s pace though, especially when backtracking to old areas.

There are collectibles to find, hidden letters left by someone with a close relationship to the island. These letters give more rich details to the story and reveal some of the who and why behind the group being tormented. Tuning into a radio frequency is the clue to finding the buried letters.

Oddly the characters go radio silent during exploration unless you happen to come across the designed path to further the game’s story. Nobody speaks in these moments and there’s no option to go up to them and start up a random conversation. The silence outside of the designated path is much more noticeable because everyone is almost always saying something.

Oxenfree reminds me in some ways of the Silent Hill games. Nothing is particularly scary about Oxenfree in a traditional horror game sense, but it does have its creepy elements. Like Silent Hill it shares similar themes by using a radio to freak people out. While Oxenfree doesn’t have many true scares, partly because everyone is always talking, it still uses the paranormal themes to create an effective setting for the story.

Haunted Memories

The trip to Edwards Island happens at a time when each person is deciding on their future nearing high school graduation. Each character in Oxenfree is going through some sort of loss and new beginnings.

The conversations feel so much more natural than in a game like Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange, a game with characters around the same age facing similar dilemmas in their personal lives. Unlike Life is Strange, the dialogue in Oxenfree doesn’t feel like it was obviously written by people out of that age group, filled with lines that teenagers probably wouldn’t say.

Throughout the night they discuss their lives, school, heartbreak, shared memories and constantly joke around while battling for their sanity. Everyone is sharp and quick-witted, with funny responses and all the biting teenage sarcasm you’d expect. Oxenfree explores teenage life without it getting annoying. The paranormal experiences are taken seriously too, effectively woven into their personal lives. Depending on Alex’s responses, the group can grow closer together during the night or drift further away.

The game’s voice acting is exceptional, with some of the cast having worked on Telltale releases like The Wolf Among Us (2013-14) and The Walking Dead (2012). Each person behind the character brings realism to their lines. The writing for each character and banter between them during the group’s high and low moments is authentic. The causes of the chaos behind the island is another well-written aspect of Oxenfree.

Adam Hines, who wrote the game’s script, also worked on Telltale releases like The Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands (2014-15). Oxenfree’s dialogue and story brings that experience from Telltale but elevates it to a higher level. Without such strong writing and a fresh dialogue system these conversations would be hard to sit through.

(Image by Tim Bowman/Quarter Disorder)

(Image by Tim Bowman/Quarter Disorder)

It takes between 4-6 hours to finish the game’s story. The ending depends on choices you made and also how you interacted with the other characters. There are multiple paths and endings in Oxenfree. There are also Achievements for successfully reaching certain points in a relationship by the end. It felt like the game could have lasted a bit longer to show more about the characters, their friendships and the island’s other realm. Without finding the hidden letters using the radio, you might not fully understand important details about the story.

The game encourages multiple playthroughs to see how relationships can change. It might be hard for some to keep up a second or third time because of all the talking, hearing the important plot points again and the slowness of the character movement. Many of the main dialogue branches remain intact even if you change Alex’s personality and the tone of the conversation. Since the game saves every time you enter a different area, you can’t load up your file to explore alternative options.

On the Xbox One version there are several minor technical issues with the game. You can’t adjust the screen, so subtitles were cut off on my TV display. I experienced a few random crashes to the Xbox home menu when selecting to go to a new area. Reloading the game would take me to next stage. At one point I had to restart an area because a character wouldn’t move forward with the scene. The studio is aware of some of these issues and is working on updates to correct them.

The game goes beyond a simple teenage story about friends secretly partying over a weekend. Oxenfree demonstrates through its story and gameplay that you can’t go back to what was. You just have to leave it all behind and move on.

Final Thoughts

Oxenfree is a strong first showing from Night School Studio. The game’s natural way of talking and its engaging conversations are refreshing takes on the adventure genre. With a cast of believable characters in a creative setting, Oxenfree is already one of the standout games of the year.

Positives:

  • Unique dialogue system
  • Authentic conversations
  • Relatable characters
  • Art style and setting
  • Voice acting
  • Music fits the mood
  • Radio feature

Negatives:

  • Characters go quiet when not advancing story
  • Conversations can sometimes be overwhelming
  • Movement not always fluid
  • Occasional technical issues

Oxenfree was purchased for $19.99 on the Xbox One for this review. As of this publication, 7/13 Achievements were obtained for 450/1000 Gamerscore.

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