System: PC, Xbox One, PS4, Switch, Android | Publisher: Night School Studio
Developer: Night School Studio | Reviewed On: Xbox One
Oxenfree is a supernatural thriller depicted through a partial side-scroller mechanism, in the style of an American teen flick. In the game, you play as Alex, a teenage girl who is on vacation on an island surrounded by close friends and part-family.
Firstly, I feel it's interesting to pay homage to the unusual name. A small amount of research reveals that the word Oxenfree could be interpreted as the german phrase used in games such as hide & seek, to tell participants who are hiding that it is safe to come out - "Olly Olly Oxen Free", which is basically how it sounds when it is said in German; "Alle Alle Auch Sind Frei". I feel, after playing the game, that the name is fitting.
As Night School Studio's debut game, I can safely comment that they have done extremely well at creating a unique game here and I'll outline why this is. As some of you may know, I'm a sucker for unique mechanics and graphic styles, and this game ticks some of those boxes.
As I said, the game is set in a style akin to that of an American teen movie and delivers a sense of nostalgia, that this is a rite of passage for Alex, stereotypically hanging out with friends outdoors, around campfires, in parks etc. That is until Oxenfree takes the player through a peculiar turn of events...
As you start the game it becomes clear that you are not just a protagonist set to breeze through a linear storyline, but instead, you are a girl coming of age with a trailing past of unresolved bereavement (from the loss of her brother). This was a nice touch to indicate from the start that there's going to be some depth to the storyline and I found that was definitely the case as you work to solve the mysteries whilst attempting to deal with said grief.
Eager to play this game, which had been heralded by so many as a masterpiece prior, I dove headfirst into the gameplay with high expectations. Those first moments as the game turned its cogs through inertia set the scene and induced the aura it was ultimately designed to, and initially, the style of free-flowing dialogue with no stop-points for decision making was a breath of fresh air. It rolled the story forward regardless of reciprocity from myself. Little did I know that this aspect was to become an annoyance later on. I found that any lapse of concentration on the following of dialogue resulted in missing various responses and opportunities, which more than likely had an effect on the way the story panned out.
The group of friend's plans for a teen vacation on the beach with drinks were soon displaced when the supernatural made an entrance. Now, I'm a big lover of weird concepts beyond the reaches of normal cognitive thought, however, at first glance, I just didn't 'get' the mystic phenomenon written into this story. But I guess I wasn't meant to 'get' it at the beginning. As with most games like this, I game the concept a chance.
As you move through the story with four friends it is easy to see why this game is so successful in winning the hearts of the public. The dialogue ebbs and flows naturally between characters as it would in real life, and its quickly evident that a lot of thought has been placed into the personality of each one. It's also important to note that from the choices you make that there is an impact on the overarching storyline dependant on which decision you make, although this is not immediately clear. For example, at one point, the group splits into three parties and you have to decide who you want to take along with you. Later on you realise why this decision alone would affect the trajectory of the script.
If we are talking directly to the point, I might try and explain what the hell is going on with all these phenomena that have dislocated Alex from a safe reality, but I would surely fail. I think the abstraction has to be experienced first-hand, not only to understand it (or attempt to) but to enjoy it as much as I did.
One thing I loved about the way Night School have laid out the game was...yep you guessed it...the artwork, which is fantastically individual in its own right; everyone knows that I'm a sucker for unique artwork. The dull pastels and sultry tones of an irregular backdrop are blended indiscriminately and are extremely satisfying when experienced in stark contrast with neon supernatural phenomena. This supplements the on-going ghostly aura of the game which was equally satisfying.
The mechanics of the game are fairly average with only a few controls to wrestle with (as would be expected in this genre of game). What is interesting, though, is the method the game implements for puzzle solving. Alex is made to unravel the mystical occurrences using sound, which in itself is innovative, but has been done before. Night School have succeeded with the concept none the less. It was as if the developer has used this as a statement rather than a ploy to add any substance to the story as you can't really get it wrong - the radio you use in-game is limited and affords you a large margin of error.
Whilst the sound approach may have been a moot point (opinion), the way it actually fits into the logistics of the underlying storyline is good but doesn't quite live up to the quality they've been able to achieve with the graphics. I think the striking beauty of the art style carries the game more than it should.
Aside from being subjected to various modes of interruption through supernatural occurrences and annoyingly random time loops, Oxenfree does a pretty good job at keeping the fruition point beyond reach of the player's future-vision. It was virtually impossible for me to predict what was going to happen throughout the entire thing which kept me on edge and more engaged.
Night School Studio has also opted to layer the story arc sevenfold, meaning that the decisions you make in the game are completely consequential with regards to the finale - meaning Oxenfree's replay value is high. On the other hand, I found that I felt fairly passive from beginning to end in the sense that it was not obvious that there were alternate story arcs stemming from the one I was apparently on. I suppose that this is a clarification that Night School have been able to conceal the design of their storytelling to a successful degree.
Having reached an ending of sorts, I wasn't completely blown away by the game but I did really enjoy the ingenuity implied. I owe this largely to the hype received before playing it myself but as I said above, the replay value of Oxenfree is high.
I will definitely be replaying to reach a different conclusion.